- Schools must actively ensure that they promote to pupils a clear message on sexual harassment.
- All staff need to be aware of their role in addressing sexual harassment.
- Consideration must be given to the alleged perpetrator as well as the victim.
It used to be passed off as ‘boys being boys’. Now, society in general and schools in particular are being asked to address the behaviour that, upsetting and unacceptable in itself, can escalate into even more serious incidents. Of course, it isn’t always directed at girls; there are examples of boys being intimidated and harassed too. However, the vast majority of incidents are committed by boys, with girls sometimes becoming part of a participating audience.
The DfE’s new guidance document Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges makes it clear that schools must provide an environment in which girls are free from the ‘bra-pinging’ sexual innuendo behaviour that perhaps used to be tolerated in the past.
The issue is that the tolerance sometimes shown to low-level comments and actions can then grow into more serious examples of harassment and even (sexual) violence. Also, the attitude of staff to this type of behaviour is a key indicator of your general safeguarding environment. Respect for all students must be established, and turning a blind eye to any form of verbal or physical harassment is unacceptable.
Understanding the terminology
This term refers to behaviour such as:
- sexual comments
- sexual ‘jokes’ or taunting
- physical behaviour such as brushing against someone or interfering with their clothes
- online behaviour such as the non-consensual sharing of sexual images and videos, or inappropriate comments on social media.
Sexual violence comes under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and includes rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault. Sexual assault includes one person intentionally touching another, knowing that they do not consent to this.
What schools should do
The first step that schools should take is to ensure that policies and overall awareness are in line with the ethos they wish to promote. Reading and sharing the DfE’s guidance document is a good place to start. From this, schools can begin to assess any changes that need to be made to safeguarding policies and procedures, and also what training staff should receive.
Some of this training is general and applies to other aspects of safeguarding. For example, staff should already be familiar with awareness of different types of abuse and neglect, what to do if they have concerns about a child and how to handle a disclosure. If they are not, then this should be rectified quickly.
In addition to this general understanding, schools should spend time looking at the types of behaviour that can be defined as sexual harassment. Are all staff aware of these and do they deal with them when they occur? Sexual comments and jokes can too easily be overlooked, and schools need to be clear in their documentation and training that this will not be tolerated.
Schools should spend time:
- gathering understanding about experiences of this type of behaviour, such as where and when it is most likely to happen
- clarifying how staff should respond and what they might say
- clarifying how different types of behaviour might be sanctioned according to the behaviour policy.
As well as talking to staff, senior leaders should seek to find out from pupils what the issues are for them. Do girls and LGBT students in particular feel safe and protected? In their experience, are any reports that they make taken seriously and acted on immediately?
If an incident occurs
The guidance document emphasises the importance of dealing with each case individually. This should include discussing it with the safeguarding lead and taking further advice from agencies such as social care and the police, if necessary. Where further advice is taken, the victim should be kept informed and understand that the complaint is being dealt with and what they can expect subsequently.
If a pupil has been harmed, is in immediate danger or is at risk of harm, a referral must be made immediately to children’s social care. If there is a report of a rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault then this must be reported to the police. The guidance is in relation to child-on-child harassment and violence, and therefore takes into consideration how schools should support not only the victim, but the alleged perpetrator too.
Immediate consideration should be given to ensuring that the two pupils are not being taught in the same classes or meeting each other casually. The allegation may not be proven, but it is in both pupils’ best interests to arrange timetables so that there is distance between them.
Parents must be kept informed, unless there are strong reasons against this, and consideration should be given to possible repercussions in the rest of the school community, for example, on social media between friends of both the victim and perpetrator.
The local authority should be able to provide advice and indicate where support might be available for the victim, depending on the nature and severity of the incident. Schools should also look for any unmet needs of the alleged perpetrator. They will continue to require education, support and possible sanctions.
There is no need to wait until the outcome of any investigation before determining the school’s own reaction. If the pupil has broken school rules and the evidence is clear, then the discipline policy can be applied as usual.
If the perpetrator is then convicted, school leaders will need to give additional consideration to how the school will react, with permanent exclusion being a possibility. Again, this depends on the nature of the crime and the individuals involved. Although schools can make their own decisions on these matters, they should work closely with other agencies.
This is a complex area of safeguarding. The DfE advice will be welcome as a guide for those schools looking for ways of preventing sexual incidents of this kind and needing to know how they should react. It provides some useful case studies and also links to organisations that can provide additional advice and support. It is essential reading for the designated safeguarding lead, but senior leaders should also familiarise themselves with the contents.
- Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges: Advice for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads, DfE, December 2017: http://bit.ly/SexualViolenceAdvice
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
- Form – Questionnaire for staff: Sexual harassment16.70 KB
- Worked example – Improving your school's approach to sexual harassment.docx21.37 KB
About the author
Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.