Sexual violence and harassment: How schools must respond

Written by: Hannah Glossop | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As thousands of young people share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence, both in and out of schools – safeguarding expert Hannah Glossop looks at how schools can sharpen their policies and procedures


Social media has been awash with devastating personal stories of sexual assaults and harassment, with seemingly little to no consequences for the perpetrators.

Young people have also come forward in droves to share harrowing stories of sexual assault, in particular contributing their stories anonymously to the Everyone’s Invited website – which has at the time of writing almost 15,000 testimonies and counting.

With many schools being named in these stories and Ofsted now launching a review into safeguarding, we need to urgently look at what schools can do to promote a culture that rallies against sexual violence and harassment.


The right culture

What does the statutory guidance say? The Department for Education’s statutory guidance document, Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021), makes clear that staff should be aware of the importance of “making clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment is not acceptable, will never be tolerated and is not an inevitable part of growing up”.

But in a world where multiple media sources objectify women and conviction rates for sexual assault are staggeringly low, this can feel like constant firefighting. So what actions can schools take?

A culture in which students and staff take sexual violence and harassment seriously needs to be created. Education is crucial here, with key topics such as consent needing to be covered in the curriculum. This is not an idea that should be taught simply to tick a box – the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), school leaders and governors need to ensure that the teaching is evaluated and improved where necessary.

Teachers should be supported to teach these integral topics, knowing how to create a safe space where issues around harmful sexual behaviours can be discussed. For example, how can leaders support teachers to discuss subjects such as the potential harms of pornography in a world where anyone can view such material online?



SecEd Best Practice: Recent articles related to these themes include:

The SecEd Podcast

  • A recent episode of our podcast focused on best practice relating to delivery of the new statutory RSHE curriculum in secondary schools. You can listen here: https://bit.ly/2UCzU8X



Being consistent

Students also need to see what they are learning about in practice. If a teacher talks about sexual harassment never being “banter” and then goes on to ignore a student wolf-whistling another student, what message does this send?

Are your staff confident in how to sanction this behaviour? Tackling sexual comments and “jokes” can be uncomfortable, but it is only when all staff pull together to make clear that this behaviour will not be accepted, that the message will consistently get through.

To create this culture of not accepting sexual assault and harassment, policies and procedures need to be clear to all staff, students and parents. The answers to the following key questions can help you to sharpen these policies and procedures:

  • How are these messages shared?
  • How well do your governors enforce these messages?
  • Do students understand this as well as they understand what will happen if they do not hand in their homework?
  • DSLs, supported by the governing body, should regularly review their response to sexual violence and harassment – what does the Student Council think about how topics such as sexual assault are taught and responded to?
  • What do the relevant staff think about the culture?
  • What more can be done?


When a student reports an incident

If a student reports sexual harassment or assault, it is vital that appropriate steps are taken. Part Five of Keeping Children Safe in Education explains how reports of child-on-child sexual violence and harassment should be managed.

First, all victims need to be reassured that they are being taken seriously – if a student does not feel supported, this sends a powerful message and can negate the positive school culture that staff have tried so hard to build.

DSLs will need to carefully consider any report, referring to children’s social care and the police as necessary. Managing a report also includes carefully balancing safeguarding the victim and wider student body, while also considering support and sanctions for any alleged perpetrators.

After any reports, school leaders should think carefully about what their key learning points are, in order to avoid a similar event happening again. Do staff need more training? Does the curriculum need updating? Does a guest speaker need to speak to the students so key messages are heard from a different perspective?


Conclusion

In summary, DSLs, governors and school leaders should consider the following:

  • How are students encouraged to report concerns? Do they know who they can talk to? Are they reassured that their concerns will be taken seriously?
  • Evaluate the curriculum around healthy relationships – when and how regularly are key topics taught? How much do students remember of these key messages?
  • Seek feedback from students – what do they understand about the above curriculum areas? How safe do they feel in referring concerns? What could be improved?
  • Seek feedback from staff – do they know how to respond with urgency to any concerns regarding sexual harassment and violence? What further support and training do they require?
  • Review policies and any past cases of sexual assault or harassment. Did actions match the policies? Do policies need updating?
  • Respond accordingly to any upcoming allegations of sexual assault or harassment, sending a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated.

As the school year continues, schools need to ensure that they create space for important conversations about harmful sexual behaviours, while also ensuring that they continue to challenge any behaviour that undermines a culture of zero-tolerance for sexual assault and violence.


Further information & resource


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