Last reviewed 27 March 2018

Awareness of pupil on pupil sexual harassment has grown over the years. Schools are now being urged to come down firmly against it. Suzanne O’Connell highlights guidance from the Department for Education’s (DfE) publication.

It’s nothing new. Sexual harassment has been part of the experience of many students for many years. Now, however, it is being recognised for the problem that it is. Some forms of harassment have been waved aside in the past as being banter or “boys being boys”. The concern is that this laissez-faire attitude of the past towards lesser crimes can lead to an environment in which the behaviour is normalised and can escalate to even more serious incidents.

That tolerance of this kind of behaviour must stop, is one of the main messages in the DfE’s recent publication, Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges. It provides advice for school leaders and designated safeguarding leads, covering familiar ground but some new ones too.

The definitions

Sexual violence means behaviour that falls under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 including rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault. Sexual assault includes one person intentionally touching another person sexually knowing that they do not consent.

Sexual harassment means “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” whether online or offline. This can include:

  • sexual comments

  • sexual “jokes” or taunting

  • physical behaviour such as brushing against someone or interfering with their clothes

  • online — such as the non-consensual sharing of sexual images and videos; inappropriate comments on social media.

The guidance also refers to “harmful sexual behaviours” and signposts readers to the Brook’s Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool and NSPCC’s Harmful Sexual Behaviour.

Legal responsibilities

Schools must:

  • have regard to specific guidance including Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children

  • have a behaviour policy and measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying

  • teach sex and relationship education (maintained secondary schools).

They should also be aware of their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998:

  • the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment

  • a duty to protect individuals’ physical and psychological integrity.

Under the Public Sector Equality Duty there is:

  • a general duty to have regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation

  • advice provided to help schools address these legal responsibilities.

Prevention

A school’s approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment should be part of their general approach to safeguarding. It should be included in policies and staff should know what to do if they become aware of it. A school should have some form of training in place that includes:

  • awareness raising of the different types of abuse and neglect

  • what to do if they have concerns about a child

  • how to handle a disclosure

  • how to offer support to children

  • knowing where to go if they need support.

Addressing the issue through the curriculum is also important. Children should be taught about safeguarding as part of a planned curriculum. This might include:

  • healthy and respectful relationships

  • what respectful behaviour looks like

  • gender roles, stereotyping, equality

  • body confidence and self-esteem

  • prejudiced behaviour

  • sexual violence and sexual harassment are always wrong

  • addressing cultures of sexual harassment.

The document recommends that children have an open forum in which they can talk things through.

Reaction

Any decision should be made on a case-by-case basis with the designated safeguarding lead. The decision might need to be supported by other agencies such as social care or the police. If a child has been harmed, is in immediate danger or is at risk of harm, a referral should be made to children’s social care immediately. Where there is a report of a rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault it should be reported to the police.

Online concerns can be particularly difficult to deal with. The UK Safer Internet Centre provides an online safety helpline for professionals (helpline@saferinternet.org.uk) and UKCCIS provides support to schools in relation to reports of sexting.

Although it is wise to seek further advice, schools should also be prepared with policies and procedures agreed in advance. This might be drawn up by the designated safeguarding lead in conjunction with police and children’s social care. Schools should also be kept informed about the support available for children.

Dealing with a disclosure

Where a disclosure of sexual harassment or sexual violence is made, then the school’s response is likely to follow a similar course to any disclosure relating to abuse. The main difference being that the perpetrator is also part of the school community as well as the victim.

The victim should never be given the impression that they have created a problem or be made to feel ashamed. It should never be assumed that someone else is dealing with the incident. A duty to deal with the allegation remains even when it has taken place away from the school.

It should be clear within the school’s ethos and reaction that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Consideration should be given immediately as to how best support and protect both the victim and alleged perpetrator.

While the school is establishing the facts of the case, the alleged perpetrator should be removed from any classes they share with the victim. The school should also consider how to best keep the victim and alleged perpetrator a reasonable distance apart while on school premises. This is in the best interest of both parties.

Schools should not wait for the outcome of a children’s social care investigation to take action to protect the victim on school premises. The designated safeguarding lead should work closely with social care but must ensure that students are protected while in school. Concerns, discussions, decisions and reasons for decisions must be recorded. Parent should be kept informed at each stage unless there are compelling reasons not to.

Where a criminal investigation leads to a conviction, then schools will need to consider sanctions according to their school behaviour policy. It could well be that such a crime would lead to permanent exclusion. Where a not guilty verdict is given or the case is not picked up by the police, it does not necessarily mean that the offence did not happen or the victim lied. Appropriate support will need to be given to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.

While deciding and responding on actions, schools should also keep an eye on social media. Friends of those involved may be drawn in to harassing the victim and alleged perpetrator online. Other students in the school can be encouraged to take sides causing wider implications for all those involved.

The perpetrator

One of the issues for schools dealing with this kind of incident between pupils is how to balance the needs of both victim and perpetrator. While the victim will need safeguarding and support, the alleged perpetrator will also require education, safeguarding support and possibly disciplinary sanctions. It is a balance that can be difficult for schools to achieve.

The key message here is that cases need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The alleged perpetrator may well have needs of their own that haven’t been met previously. It might be that the behaviour is a symptom of their own abuse or exposure to abusive practices and materials. Taking advice is important. Although the school can make its own decisions relating to sanctions and support, they should work closely with the relevant agencies.

This document is a useful guide for schools to use. Some of it is directly applicable to general safeguarding concerns, for example, what to do if a child makes a disclosure. However, it does cover some very specific issues such as what to do in the case that a child at school is on police bail or receives a caution for sexual offences.

The clear message that is repeated throughout the document is that sexual harassment and sexual violence must not be tolerated. Schools have a key role in taking a strong line on this and must make sure that all staff, pupils and parents take it with them.