Handling sexual allegations between students

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment is an increasing challenge for schools, both secondary and primary, and last year the Department for Education (DfE) released advice for schools to support the consistent management of such allegations. Dai Durbridge, lawyer and safeguarding expert writes in SecEd.

It is a depressing fact that this DfE advice and statutory guidance is required at all, but the reality is that many schools are having to manage allegations of pupil-on-pupil abuse, assault and harassment.

Before turning to the gap that needs plugging, let us first briefly focus on what the guidance requires, and how it supports schools with these extremely emotive allegations.

Importantly, the advice sets out exactly what is meant by sexual violence and sexual harassment. Sexual violence refers to the criminal acts of rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault, as defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Sexual harassment is described as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. It also makes clear that sexual violence and harassment is unacceptable and must not be considered an inevitable part of growing up or dismissed as banter.

The advice goes on to set out the steps that schools should take when responding to a report, including risk assessments, investigations, deciding whether to involve other agencies and deciding how to manage on-going contact between the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim.

It is with this latter point that the most difficult challenge for schools arises. The guidance uses a number of case studies to put its advice into practical situations that could, and do, arise in schools. 

However, there are two real problems that schools face when managing these allegations that are not covered in the case studies, and yet one or both of these problems appear in most of the more serious allegations:

  1. A lack of resources to support an alleged perpetrator who needs to be separated from the alleged victim.
  2. Parents of the alleged perpetrator and alleged victim refusing to agree to a change of school.

On paper this makes sense, but in reality there are some significant challenges. If it is deemed necessary to move one of the children (and the advice says that all actions must be taken against the alleged perpetrator), where do they go?

If the police are involved it gets even more complicated.

Let us take an allegation that, sadly, will sound all too familiar: a female pupil alleges that a male pupil raped her outside of school hours away from the school site. The male pupil admits to sexual intercourse but strongly denies rape. The police are involved. The alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim are in the same class.

Both sets of parents refuse a change of schools for their child and the parents of the alleged perpetrator are adamant that no change to his education routine would be fair. Exclusion is not an option because you cannot investigate. The police investigation is likely to take some time and, assuming charges are brought, more time will be needed for a court case and outcome.

So where does the school go from here? Well, the answer is likely to lie in closer multiagency working. The three agencies involved – the school, the local authority and the police – are broadly looking to achieve the same thing: clarity on what happened and appropriate action to safeguard all children involved.

Read more about this highly sensitive area Handling sexual allegations between students

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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