Handling incidents of sexual assault in schools

Written by: Emma Banister Dean | Published:
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Preventing and responding to incidents of child-on-child sexual assault is a key part of safeguarding in the school environment. Emma Banister Dean offers a practical guide for schools and parents

Sexual assault by children on their peers has been in the news of late. The Department for Education (DfE) advice on sexual violence between children in schools and colleges (May 2018), has provided some guidance, but it lacks much needed practical information on preventing or responding to assaults in schools.

Around a third of sexual abuse of children is carried out by their peers. The chief executive of victim support charity Mosac has described the scale of the problem as “seismic”.

Responses to Freedom of Information requests from 38 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have shown that there were 30,000 reports of sexual assaults committed by children over the past four years – 2,625 of which were carried out on school premises.

The NSPCC, among other organisations, is lobbying for a government study to determine the scale of the abuse in order to assess the resources needed to address it. In the meantime, parents and schools are on the frontline in trying to prevent abuse and to limit its impact if and when it occurs.

The issue has been brought back to the fore with the recent headlines about a girl who was sexually assaulted repeatedly at the age of six by boys in her school playground. It is thought to be the first time the High Court has approved a settlement in a case of this nature involving primary-age pupils (Payout over schoolboys’ sex assaults on girl, 6, BBC, November 2018).

If a child discloses abuse to a professional, the most likely professional to be trusted is a teacher. Children who have been abused often blurt out their disclosure and key to preventing further damage is keeping that line of communication open. If children perceive that their disclosure is not believed or not taken seriously then they may well not say anything further. Sexual abuse typically goes on for three and a half years before it is discovered.

Children with SEND are three times more likely to be abused. The signs of abuse among these more vulnerable children can also often be missed because of communication barriers or the fact that behaviours, such as heightened aggression, can be mistaken for being associated with their disability.

In order to avoid seeming disinterested during the disclosure, advice from charities is to maintain focus and make notes after the disclosure discussion has ended. Those notes are likely to be evidence in any subsequent investigation so make sure that you record only what the child said and not your conjecture arising from it. Thereafter keep a diary note of any further disclosure.

Don’t promise the child that you will keep what they tell you confidential. If you break that promise it will cause further damage. Simply explain that you won’t tell anyone else without letting them know first.

The next step for professionals in the school environment is urgently to follow your safeguarding policies and procedures. Those procedures, developed by colleagues with expertise in dealing with child protection, will be the best way of ensuring that you do not face later criticism and that the children involved are protected.

After a report to the safeguarding lead, the next step should be to carry out an immediate risk and needs assessment. That assessment should be recorded electronically and reviewed regularly in case of the need to make adjustments. Factors to be considered should include: protection and support of the reporting child and other children; peer pressure or bullying, including disclosures on social media; and the school’s obligations as to the wellbeing of the alleged perpetrator.

It should go without saying that sexual assault is a crime and should be reported to the police. Even where the children are younger than 10-years-old and below the age of criminal responsibility the DfE guidance is still to contact the police.

If the child is at risk of further harm, or in need of help, the police and local authority can be contacted without prior parental consent. In any case of reported rape the accused child should immediately be removed from any classes shared with the alleged victim in the best interests of both children.

Any safeguarding procedures should be checked to ensure that they provide clear guidance on how to respond to an allegation where the alleged perpetrator is also a pupil or student. This should include conduct by a fellow pupil off school premises, such as on a play date, weekend party or school trip.

The NSPCC has a special helpline for education professionals wanting support or guidance on dealing with allegations of abuse (0808 800 5000 or help@nspcc.org.uk). For the safeguarding team, specialist charities provide bespoke training including on issues such as sibling abuse and how to spot the early warning signs of grooming behaviour.

All children should be introduced to the concepts of boundaries and consent at primary school. Children as young as five have been excluded from school for sexual impropriety. Depending on the age and maturity of the assaulted child they might not understand what is happening to them or have the vocabulary necessary to describe it. Some will think that, however unwelcome, this is what happens to all children.

Depending on the child, schools, parents and carers can look out for a combination of the following signs:

  • Avoiding being alone with people.
  • Developmentally inappropriate knowledge or language.
  • Physical symptoms.
  • Problems sleeping.
  • Unusually clingy behaviour.
  • Nightmares.
  • Altered mood such as depressive or aggressive behaviour.

If a child discloses to their parent that they are being abused it is because they expect that parent to stop it. They may also disclose to their peers, wanting emotional support, which means that children need to be provided with an age-appropriate toolkit to know when and whom to tell.

Parents or carers whose children disclose abuse by another child often feel an unjustified sense of having failed to protect their child as well as being embarrassed and at a loss about who to talk to. Charities such as Mosac provide support for those parents via email or telephone.

They also provide specialist training on how to deal with the fallout from the abuse, such as their children’s anger and sexualised behaviour. Parents and carers need to be equipped to cope with disclosure by the child to third parties and with the reaction of those people to the disclosure.

Charities, including Mosac, provide guidance on fictional literature that can be used to aid a child’s journey of recovery following abuse – stories that open up discussion about what happened or simply emphasise that the abused child has done the right thing in disclosing and is in no way to blame. These stories can also be used to emphasise children’s right to say no and to protect their own bodies and wellbeing, as well as not keeping bad secrets.

The recent media reports of peer-on-peer abuse focus on the school having paid a settlement for breach of contract and duty of care without admission of liability. There have been a number of settlements that were not reported. Parents have also received financial compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority on behalf of their children.

Failure adequately to address these incidents, however uncomfortable that may be, is more likely to result in reputational damage to the school. More importantly, the reaction of authority figures to such a disclosure is a key component in the recovery of the disclosing child and in enabling future disclosure by fellow pupils.

Further information

  • Keeping Children Safe in Education, DfE, March 2015 (last updated September 2018): http://bit.ly/2bI2Zsm
  • Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges, DfE, December 2017 (last updated May 2018): http://bit.ly/2ASbvks
  • To access the NSPCC’s helpline for education professionals wanting support or guidance on dealing with allegations of abuse, call 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk
  • The victim support charity Mosac provide support for parents of children who have suffered abuse. Visit www.mosac.org.uk or call 0800 980 1958.


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