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Schools are being urged to take more care over how they treat pupils who have been sexually abused by classmates

31 Mar 2017

Schools are being urged to take more care over how they treat pupils who have been sexually abused by classmates. 

In many cases, staff have failed rape victims by putting them back into classrooms with their alleged attackers.

MPs and charities have warned that schools are struggling to respond to “peer on peer” sexual abuse because there is a “gap” in the government’s safeguarding guidance.

One senior figure on the front line of supporting sufferers of sexual violence said that she had nearly “lost count” of the number of victims she had seen who had been returned to the same class as their alleged attacker following a report of abuse. 

Jocelyn Anderson, the chief executive of West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre since 2004, said: “It happens regularly… it’s not unusual.”

Teachers ‘shooting in the dark’

Labour MP Jess Phillips has encountered a number of such cases and said that schools were “shooting in the dark” because of a lack of guidance from government.

A mother whose daughter went through such an ordeal revealed the way a school dealt with it resulted in “endless additional suffering”.

Victims can end up being returned to the same classroom as their attacker after reporting abuse when police or legal proceedings are ongoing. Ms Anderson said that of the 99 new referrals involving peer-on-peer abuse that her centre received in 2015-16, across Herefordshire and Worcestershire, at least 10 pupils were put in the position of going back into the classroom with the person who attacked them.

“The schools tend to go down the line of ‘if it’s not proven by the police, there’s nothing we can do’,” she said. This amounted to “automatic prioritisation” of the attacker over the victim.

“If you have a child that has been raped, they are going to be fearful of their offender; it could happen again. They are not going to be in the position where they can focus on their studies.”

One mother, whose 16-year-old daughter was raped out of school, said that her daughter’s alleged attacker, a fellow pupil, was arrested by police and released on bail, with one of the bail conditions being that he should not make contact with her. But the day after the arrest, the school put both pupils in the same classroom.

The girl’s mother said: “There was nothing I could do to get them to see that that is an impossible position to put her in; it causes endless additional suffering. The school said there was nothing they could do because he was innocent until proven guilty. That is true in a legal sense, but it is absolutely not the line they would take if the alleged rapist were an adult. An adult on bail for rape would be suspended immediately.” 

The fact that schools are continuing to place victims in the same classrooms as their alleged attackers is partly attributed by MPs and charities to the inadequacy of government guidance on how such incidents should be dealt with. A report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in September says that schools lack “guidance, training and structures to deal with incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence”, and that such cases were often “brushed aside…and not taken sufficiently seriously by school leaders”.

It notes that the government’s statutory safeguarding guidance had been criticised by a number of witnesses as “inadequate”.

'Gap' in the guidance

The document, Keeping children safe in education, contains just three paragraphs relating to peer-on-peer abuse. It simply says that schools should ensure that their child-protection policy includes “procedures to minimise the risk of peer-on-peer abuse and sets out how allegations of peer-on-peer abuse will be investigated and dealt with”. 

In comparison, the guidance has an entire 11-page section setting out in detail how allegations of abuse made against teachers and other staff should be handled. 

Michael Simpson, a senior policy officer at the NSPCC, said that there is a “gap” in the current guidance: “We don’t think it gives enough direction to schools regarding peer-on-peer abuse… there’s scant detail.” 

Ms Phillips, who once worked for a domestic sexual-abuse charity before becoming a MP, said schools were “shooting in the dark”, and urged the Department for Education to quickly set out new guidance.

Placing a young person in the same classroom as their rapist represented an “unprecedented breach of children’s safeguarding”, she said.

Ms Phillips added that the families she had met had been made to feel powerless by how their child had been treated. “The parents just felt completely and utterly helpless, like their child wasn’t safe,” she said: “It was certainly affecting their family life…their mental health and their feelings of safety.”

Ms Phillips argued that schools would not respond to other safeguarding risks with an assumption that “a lie is being told”, so they should not do so in cases of alleged peer-on-peer abuse. “If a kid said ‘I saw so and so, they had a knife in school’…the school would not wait in that instance until the child was convicted in a court of law before acting,” she said.

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), agreed that further guidance is needed from the government. He said that ASCL had “picked up some cases” of secondary school members who were “struggling” with the issue.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Sexual assault of any kind is an offence and must always be reported to the police. Schools should be safe places and we issue safeguarding guidance to protect pupils’ welfare. Our latest guidance was updated in September 2016 and includes a section on peer-on-peer abuse.

“We think the right laws are in place to enable teachers to take swift action to deal with underlying behaviours and stop it escalating but we will work with schools on whether further support is needed.”