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Investigation: peer-on-peer sexual abuse

20 September 2021

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment among children and young people isn’t new, but we are becoming more aware of its prevalence. Journalist Anna Scott finds out what’s going on.

In June 2020, Soma Sara founded Everyone’s Invited, a website for children and young people to highlight their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Soma had already been sharing her experiences of rape culture on Instagram, and realised through conversations with friends at school and university how widespread such behaviour is.

Since 8 March 2021, 51,000 anonymous testimonies from around the world have been shared on the website (Everyone’s Invited, 2021). They make for harrowing reading – covering experiences of children at primary and secondary school, young adults at university and elsewhere, grooming on the internet, groping, bullying and rape (see Young people’s stories, below). There are also examples of teachers abusing children: one testimony describes a male teacher who ‘pinged’ girls’ bra straps as they filed past him into class (Everyone’s Invited, 2021).

In response to the allegations, Dr Joe Spence, master of Dulwich College in south London – one of the many schools named on the website – said the school would listen to what women and girls are telling them about their experiences and concerns, adding that, as an educator of boys, it had a particular role to play (Dulwich College, 2021). ‘The behaviour described is distressing and entirely unacceptable; we condemn it unreservedly,’ he said. ‘Any specific and evidenced allegations will be addressed, and we will involve external authorities where appropriate.’

He added that the school will play its part in ‘addressing the societal problem of the objectification of women and the fact that women and girls are feeling unsafe and disrespected on our streets and in our institutions’.

In response to the Everyone’s Invited testimonies, the Department for Education (DfE) commissioned the NSPCC to launch and run the dedicated Report Abuse in Education helpline for children and young people who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at school as well as for adults and professionals that need support and guidance (NSPCC, 2021a).

In the first three months after its launch on 1 April, the helpline received 513 calls from across the entire UK, 97 of which were referred to external agencies – including the police and local authorities, says Sandra Robinson, NCPCC helpline manager.

‘Sexual abuse and exploitation by peers were the most common issues and ranged from incidents such as pupils looking up classmates’ skirts to rape,’ says Sandra. ‘The majority of victims in a referral were children of secondary school age or young adults. We’ve also heard from parents and teachers who were concerned that incidents were not dealt with properly at schools, which risks harming children further. School staff have also been in touch for advice on how to handle incidents.’

‘It took the testimonies of really brave people for it to come to light and get the public attention we have been trying to get for years’

Government responses

Prior to the launch of Everyone’s Invited, the Home Office published a Tackling child sexual abuse strategy in January 2021, which aims to help survivors of child sexual abuse by boosting investment in specialist sexual violence services (Home Office, 2021). Since Everyone’s Invited highlighted peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse in schools, the UK Government asked Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse occurring in schools and colleges in England to understand the scale of the problem (Ofsted, 2021).

The agency visited 32 schools and colleges, and spoke to more than 900 children and young people about the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence. It also talked with leaders, teachers, governors, parents and local safeguarding partners, including health services (see What Ofsted found, below). It found that, for some children, sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them. Ofsted recommends that schools, colleges and multi-agency partners act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening even when there are no specific reports (Ofsted, 2021).

In response to the Ofsted review, the DfE has taken a number of steps. These include strengthening the wording in its Keeping children safe in education (KCSiE) guidance on routine record-keeping, systems for reporting abuse and how to respond to reports occurring outside school. It also removed rarely recognised terms such as ‘sexting’ from the latest guidance to reflect language used by younger people. A spokesperson adds: ‘We have extended KCSiE to all post-16 settings and asked local safeguarding partnerships to engage with schools in their areas and clarify the safeguarding arrangements in place.’

The devolved governments have also outlined how they intend to respond to the review, even though getting a clear picture of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and violence across the devolved countries is less simple. This is because the statistics tend to focus on all sexual harassment and abuse of children and young people, and not just peer-on-peer instances.

‘The department has been engaging with other UK jurisdictions on actions being taken in response 
to the Everyone’s Invited website and is currently considering, in collaboration with stakeholders, what specific action is required,’ says a spokesperson from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. A spokesperson from the Welsh Government says: ‘The minister for education and Welsh language commissioned a review into sexual harassment and abuse in education settings [in June]. It will be led by [training provider] Estyn and will start shortly.’

In Scotland, a series of programmes to tackle this problem have been underway for some years, including Mentors in Violence Prevention, which encourages young people to challenge attitudes and cultural norms that underpin gender- and sex-based violence and bullying (Education Scotland, 2021).

‘Education Scotland will be delivering professional learning to help schools tackle technology-assisted problematic sexual behaviours,’ says a spokesperson. ‘Education Scotland took over delivery of this professional learning in late spring 2021, and publication of resources will follow in due course.’

‘Health visitors are sometimes the first professional families might see in terms of needing support if there is domestic abuse’

‘Nothing new’

According to one study, there were 55,874 sexual offences against children in England and 3919 in Wales in 2019 and 2020, 2087 in Northern Ireland and 4718 in Scotland (NSPCC, 2021b). These include offences committed by adults. An earlier study (Hackett, 2014) suggests that anywhere from one-fifth to two-thirds of sexual abuse is committed by other children. More recent statistics on the problem of peer-on-peer sexual abuse might not be readily available, but it’s clear this is a nationwide problem.

‘We continue to view sexual harassment as a significant problem throughout our society, and sadly also within educational establishments,’ says a spokesperson for the teaching union Educational Institute of Scotland. ‘What we are witnessing after #MeToo and Everyone’s Invited is more people coming forward anonymously. But we should make no mistake – sexual harassment is nothing new, and we know these accounts will just be the tip of the iceberg,’ the spokesperson adds. Sandra says that, in fact, many of the testimonies to the NSPCC helpline are about historical abuse.

Emma James, senior policy adviser at Barnardo’s, says the charity has been ‘supporting victims of sexual harassment and abuse in schools, as well as supporting children and young people who exhibit those harmful behaviours to change their ways, for many, many years’. Nevertheless, she adds: ‘Unfortunately, it took the testimonies from really brave people for it to come to light and get the public attention we have been trying to get for years.’

However, what has changed is access to the internet. ‘The harassment that happens online is definitely increasing,’ Emma says. ‘A couple of years ago, not all young people would have access to the internet on their phones. They rely so much on it, especially over the last 18 months during the lockdown – the majority of children have relied on going online on their phones for social interaction and for their schooling.’

Barnardo’s would like to see measures added to the upcoming Online Safety Bill to protect children from seeing harmful pornography, which Ofsted cited in its review as having a significant impact on children (Ofsted, 2021). ‘If the first relationship a child sees is through watching porn online, it’s going to affect how they see the opposite sex, it’s going to affect how they think relationships really are,’ Emma says.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, says the problem isn’t simply one for schools. ‘In particular, I am deeply concerned about the role of the online world in this harassment and violence. The underlying norms and beliefs which drive abuse are often shaped by access to inappropriate online content, including violent and extreme pornography,’ she says. ‘The Online Safety Bill represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put greater responsibility on technology companies to make their platforms safer and happier places for children.’

This behaviour is not just learned online. ‘Unhealthy behaviour among peers [can] normalise problematic behaviour, or some young people may have experienced adversity themselves and could go on to harm others as they don’t realise what happened to them was wrong,’ says Sandra.

The lockdown has had an impact too. Barbara Morgan, senior nurse for school nursing and childhood immunisations at Hywel Dda University Health Board, says that abuse in the home and child-on-child sexual abuse has risen in the past 18 months, with increasing safeguarding work being undertaken with children and young people. ‘As a result of long periods of lockdown, families have struggled to cope and the increased use of social media by children and young people has resulted in an unrealistic view of relationships and sexual relationships,’ she adds.

A societal problem

Tackling peer-on-peer sexual harassment is a multi-profession and multi-organisation effort, and community practitioners have a crucial role to play. ‘[School nurses should] be working hand in hand with the school, helping to get children the support they need – opportunities to talk, liaison between support agencies and so on,’ says Obi Amadi, lead professional officer at Unite-CPHVA. ‘There should be dedicated staff and safe spaces for children to raise these issues: teachers for a pastoral care role, school nurses for perfecting this and being the consistent health professional that is trusted by the children.’

The school nursing service at the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board provides drop-in services to secondary schools in Gwent. ‘School nurses have a significant role to play in addressing the emotional health and wellbeing needs of school-age children – this includes contributing to the preventative agenda, early intervention and building resilience,’ a spokesperson says. ‘There are other ways for school nurses to raise awareness and open dialogue about sexual harassment – such as incorporating questions into their health assessment, which allows [Making Every Contact Count] opportunities.’

Barbara adds that schools play a vital role in health promotion in schools. ‘Sex and relationship education and puberty talks have been missed throughout the pandemic,’ she says. ‘Health promotion may involve virtual or class-based learning using information leaflets and/or PowerPoint information in schools provided by school nurses.’ Other community practitioners can play a role too. ‘Health visitors are sometimes the first professional families might see in terms of needing support in parenting, but also if there is domestic abuse,’ Emma says. ‘Training is really important for health visitors and school nurses to understand things like coercive control […] how to approach it if they suspect it and really having the confidence to take something forward.’

Ultimately, sexual abuse and harassment is a ‘societal problem’, according to Dame Rachel. ‘Schools must provide support to anyone affected, and if there is an underlying culture in schools that allows children to believe they can get away with sexual harassment or abuse, it must be tackled,’ she adds. ‘Abuse should never be dismissed as “boys being boys” or “banter”. Serious concerns should be escalated to social care and the police where necessary. Harmful sexual behaviour by a child should also be considered a safeguarding issue and appropriate steps taken to make sure they are given support.’

Parents also have a role to play in talking and listening to their children about what happens at school. ‘Listen and observe children for signs of being the abuser or the abused,’ Obi says, ‘and monitor their exposure to media.’ Emma adds: ‘Parents should be having open conversations with their child about online safety and about respect and consent.’

These conversations are for families, schools, agencies, companies and society as a whole to have openly and honestly. As culture shifts and understanding grows, more children and young people will feel able to come forward about their experiences – and more people will understand the importance of consent and respect. Community practitioners will play an important role in supporting them.

 


Young people's stories

‘The head boy has allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted multiple girls both in and out of school and loads of people know but no one does anything’

‘The school breeds misogynistic boys. At the start of the sixth form the girls are given a talk about how to deal with boys – which was more about how to tolerate their behaviour. No such talk was given to the boys’

‘My mum has always told me to scream, shout, swear if I felt I was being assaulted or threatened. Boys in my year consistently touched girls’ bums. And one day it happened to me in the corridor. I screamed and swore loud at him. That day my mum received a phone call saying I was in detention for swearing in the corridor. He was going to be punished, but so will I for breaking the school rules for swearing’

‘In Year 10 I was groped by another girl in my year. I was not the only one. She repeated the same routine every time: she would pretend to tickle you and then grab your boob. In year 11 I went to a party with another girl and we were all drunk. She kept trying to convince me to kiss her and I kept giving excuses. Then I leant down to pick something up and she grabbed my face and kissed me. None of these were particularly extreme examples of sexual assault and I am always worried about speaking out. I am bisexual and do not want to play into “predatory” gay/lesbian stereotypes’

Everyone’s Invited, 2021


Resources  

The Department for Education’s statutory safeguarding guidance for schools and colleges bit.ly/DfE_safeguarding  

Six things you should know about child sexual abuse, from Barnardo’s bit.ly/Barnardos_sexual_abuse

A report on tackling sexual harassment in educational establishments from teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland bit.ly/EIS_harassment  

Everyone’s Invited provides ongoing testimonies from survivors of rape culture bit.ly/Everyones_Invited

Ofsted’s Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges bit.ly/Ofsted_abuse_review  

A range of resources from the NSPCC to help adults respond to children disclosing abuse bit.ly/NSPCC_listening_resources


References

Dulwich College. (2021) Statement from Dulwich College: equality and respect. See: https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1617087807/dulwichorguk/raargzyvugn78gzige8o/Equality_and_Respect_Statement_from_Dulwich_College_29_March_2021.pdf (accessed: 9 July 2021)

Education Scotland. (2021) Mentors in violence prevention: an overview. See: https://education.gov.scot/improvement/practice-exemplars/mentors-for-violence-prevention-mvp-an-overview/ (accessed 27 July 2021).

Everyone’s Invited. (2021) Survivor testimonies. See: https://www.everyonesinvited.uk/read-testimonies-page-46 (accessed 6 September 2021).

Hackett S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. See: http://ncsby.org/sites/default/files/UK%20Report%20on%20Children%20and%20Young%20People%20with%20Harmful%20Sexual%20Behavior.pdf (accessed 3 August 2021).

Home Office. (2021) Tackling child sexual abuse strategy. See: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/973236/Tackling_Child_Sexual_Abuse_Strategy_2021.pdf (accessed 9 July 2021).

NSPCC. (2021a) Report Abuse in Education helpline resources launched. See: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/news/2021/may/resources-promote-report-abuse-in-education-helpline (accessed 23 July 2021). 

NSPCC. (2021b) Statistics briefing: child sexual abuse. See: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1710/statistics-briefing-child-sexual-abuse.pdf (accessed 9 August 2021).

Ofsted. (2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges#executive-summary-and-recommendations (accessed 9 July 2021).

Image credit | Shutterstock

 

 

 

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