Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges

Summary of Department for Education (DfE) guidance highlighting best practice and other advice, statutory guidance and the legal framework

This briefing summarises key points from the new DfE guidance on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children (anyone under the age of 18) at school and college. The guidance defines what sexual violence and sexual harassment is, how to minimise the risk of it occurring and what to do when incidents occur or are alleged to have occurred. 


Background to the report

Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges sets out:

  • what sexual violence and harassment between children is
  • schools' and colleges' legal responsibilities
  • a whole school or college approach to safeguarding and child protection
  • how to respond to reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

The guidance includes advice on children sharing a classroom following reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

The guidance states that it is the responsibility of individual schools and colleges to:

  • develop their own policies and procedures
  • consider how to reflect sexual violence and sexual harassment in their whole school or college approach to safeguarding and their own child protection policy.

The DfE expects to update this guidance alongside their revision of Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance last published in September 2016. The DfE is consulting on Keeping children safe in education: proposed revisions. The consultation closes on 18 February 2018.

Key findings from the report

What sexual violence and sexual harassment between children is

Sexual violence or sexual harassment can occur between 2 children of any sex. It can also occur through a group of children sexually assaulting or sexually harassing a single child or group of children. The guidance defines the following terms:

Sexual violence includes:

  • rape
  • assault by penetration
  • sexual assault - intentionally touching another person in a way that is sexual.

The guidance defines sexual harassment as 'unwanted conduct of a sexual nature' that can occur online and offline. Sexual harassment is likely to:

  • violate a child's dignity, and/or
  • make them feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated and/or
  • create a hostile, offensive or sexualised environment.

The guidance describes harmful sexual behaviours as problematic, abusive and violent sexual behaviours that are developmentally inappropriate and may cause developmental damage. Sexual behaviour between children can be considered harmful if 1 of the children is much older, particularly if there is more than 2 years' difference in age or if one of the children is pre-pubescent and the other is not. Children displaying harmful sexual behaviours have often experienced their own abuse and trauma.


Children who experience sexual violence and sexual harassment will likely find it stressful and distressing. It is more likely that girls will be the victims of sexual violence and more likely that sexual harassment will be perpetrated by boys. Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) can be especially vulnerable.

Schools' and colleges' legal responsibilities

Schools and colleges have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children at their school or college. As part of this duty, schools and colleges are required to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

All schools and colleges must have regard to:

Schools and colleges should also be aware of their obligations under:

The guidance states that schools and colleges should:

  • consider the makeup of their own student body, including the gender and age range of its pupils, and whether additional support for children with protected characteristics - who are potentially at greater risk - is appropriate
  • consider what they can do to foster healthy and respectful relationships between boys and girls including through relationship and sex education (RSE) and personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE)
  • ensure that their response to boy on boy and girl on girl sexual violence and sexual harassment is equally robust as it is for sexual violence and sexual harassment between children of the opposite sex.

A whole school or college approach safeguarding and child protection

A whole school or college approach to preventing child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment means involving everyone in the school or college, including the governing body or proprietor, all the staff, all the children and their parents or carers.

This includes:

The school's or college's approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment should reflect and be part of the broader approach to safeguarding. Safeguarding procedures with regard to sexual violence and sexual harassment should be transparent, clear and easy to understand for staff, pupils, parents and carers.

Schools and colleges can play an important role in preventative education. The most effective preventative education programme will be through a whole school approach. Such a programme may tackle such issues as:

  • healthy and respectful relationships
  • what respectful behaviour looks like
  • gender roles, stereotyping, equality
  • body confidence and self-esteem
  • prejudiced behaviour
  • that sexual violence and sexual harassment is always wrong
  • addressing cultures of sexual harassment.

Schools often deliver this through planned, high-quality SRE and PSHE programmes.

As part of their approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment, schools and colleges should consider carefully if external input is necessary to train and/or support their staff, teach their children and/or provide support to their children.

How to respond to reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment

The guidance provides effective safeguarding practice and principles for schools and colleges to consider in their decision-making process. Decisions are for the school or college to make on a case-by-case basis. The designated safeguarding lead or a deputy should take a leading role and use their professional judgment, supported by other agencies, such as children's social care and the police as required.

Managing the disclosure

The school's or college's initial response to a disclosure from a child is important. It is essential that victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously and that they will be supported and kept safe.

The guidance outlines effective safeguarding practice including:

  • not promising confidentiality at this initial stage as it is very likely a concern will have to be shared further
  • listening carefully to the child, being non-judgmental, being clear about boundaries and how the disclosure will be progressed
  • only recording the facts as the child presents them.
  • informing the designated safeguarding lead, or deputy, as soon as practically possible.

Confidentiality

Staff taking a disclosure should never promise confidentiality. The victim may ask the school or college not to tell anyone about the sexual violence or sexual harassment. The designated safeguarding lead, or a deputy, should consider the following:

  • parents or carers should normally be informed unless this would put the victim at greater risk
  • the basic safeguarding principle is: if a child is at risk of harm, is in immediate danger or has been harmed then a referral should be made to children's social care
  • rape, assault by penetration and sexual assaults are crimes. The starting point is that reports should be passed to the police.

Ultimately, the designated safeguarding lead or a deputy will have to balance the child or young person's wishes against their duty to protect them and other children.

Anonymity

Where an allegation of sexual violence or sexual harassment is progressing through the criminal justice system, schools and colleges should be aware of anonymity, witness support and the criminal process in general so they can offer support and act appropriately. Information is available from CPS: Safeguarding children as victims and witnesses.

Risk Assessment

When there has been a report of sexual violence, the designated safeguarding lead or a deputy should make an immediate risk and needs assessment. Where there has been a report of sexual harassment, the need for a risk assessment should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The risk and needs assessment should consider the:

  • victim
  • alleged perpetrator
  • both other children and, if appropriate, staff at the school or college.

Risk assessments should be recorded, either written or electronically, and should be kept under review. The designated safeguarding lead or a deputy should ensure they are engaging with children's social care and specialist services as required. Where there has been a report of sexual violence it is likely that professional risk assessments by social workers and or sexual violence specialists will be required.

The designated safeguarding lead or deputy is likely to have a complete safeguarding picture and be the most appropriate person to decide on the school's or college's initial response. In all cases, schools and colleges should follow general safeguarding principles outlined in Keeping children safe in education. Important considerations will include:

  • the wishes of the victim in terms of how they want to proceed. Victims should be given as much control as is reasonably possible over decisions regarding how any investigation will be progressed and any support that they will be offered
  • the nature of the alleged incident(s), including might a crime have been committed and consideration of harmful sexual behaviour
  • the ages of the children involved
  • the developmental stages of the children involved
  • any power imbalance between the children, for example if the alleged perpetrator is significantly older
  • if the alleged incident is an isolated incident or a sustained pattern of abuse.

The starting point regarding any report should always be that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

The guidance includes advice on children sharing a classroom following a report of sexual violence, sexual harassment and during a criminal investigation.

    • Following a report of sexual violence or harassment
      Following reports of rape and assault by penetration, while the school or college establishes the facts of the case and starts the process of liaising with children's social care and the police, the guidance states that:
      • the alleged perpetrator should be removed from any classes they share with the victim
      • the school or college should also consider how best to keep the victim and alleged perpetrator a reasonable distance apart on school or college premises and on transport to and from the school or college.

For other reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment, the proximity of the victim and alleged perpetrator and considerations regarding shared classes, sharing school or college premises and school or college transport, should be considered immediately.

  • Where a criminal investigation into a rape or assault by penetration leads to a conviction or caution
    In all but the most exceptional of circumstances, the rape or assault is likely to constitute a serious breach of discipline and lead to the view that allowing the perpetrator to remain in the same school or college would seriously harm the education or welfare of the victim and potentially other pupils.
  • Where a criminal investigation into sexual assault leads to a conviction or caution
    The school or college should, if it has not already, consider any suitable sanctions in light of their behaviour policy, including consideration of permanent exclusion. Where the perpetrator is going to remain at the school or college, the principle would be to continue keeping the victim and perpetrator in separate classes and continue to consider the most appropriate way to manage potential contact on school and college premises and transport.

In all cases, schools and colleges should record and be able to justify their decision making. All of the above should be considered with the needs and wishes of the victim at the heart of the process, supported by parents and carers as required. Any arrangements should be kept under review.

Safeguarding and supporting the victim

Victims may not disclose the whole picture immediately. They may be more comfortable providing information on a piecemeal basis. It is essential that dialogue is kept open and encouraged. When it is clear that ongoing support will be required, schools and colleges should ask the victim if they would find it helpful to have a designated trusted adult, for example their form tutor or designated safeguarding lead, to talk to about their needs.

A victim of sexual violence is likely to be traumatised and, in some cases, may struggle in a normal classroom environment. There may be times when the victim finds it difficult to maintain a full-time timetable and may express a wish to withdraw from lessons and activities.

If the trauma results in the victim being unable to remain in school, alternative provision or a move to another school or college should be considered to enable them to continue to receive suitable education. This should only be at the request of the victim and following discussion with their parents or carers.

Safeguarding and supporting the alleged perpetrator

The guidance recognises that the school or college will have to balance safeguarding the victim, and the wider student body, with providing the alleged perpetrator with an education, safeguarding support as appropriate and implementing any disciplinary sanctions.

Consideration should be given to:

  • the age and the developmental stage of the alleged perpetrator and nature of the allegations. Any child will likely experience stress as a result of being the subject of allegations and/or negative reactions by their peers to the allegations against them
  • the proportionality of the response. Support and sanctions should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Discipline and the alleged perpetrator

Disciplinary action can be taken whilst other investigations by the police and/or children's social care are ongoing. The fact that another body is investigating or has investigated an incident does not in itself prevent a school from coming to its own conclusion, on the balance of probabilities, about what happened, and imposing a penalty accordingly.

Working with parents and carers

The school or college will, in most instances, engage with both the victim's and the alleged perpetrator's parents or carers when there has been a report of sexual violence. This might not be necessary or proportional in the case of sexual harassment and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The exception to this rule is if there is a reason to believe informing a parent or carer will put a child at additional risk.

It is good practice for the school or college to meet the victim's parents or carers with the victim present to discuss what arrangements are being put in place to safeguard the victim and understand their wishes in terms of support they may need and how the report will be progressed.

It is also is also good practice for the school or college to meet with the alleged perpetrator's parents or carers to discuss any arrangements that are being put into place that impact the alleged perpetrator.

Safeguarding other children

Consideration should be given to supporting children who have witnessed sexual violence, especially rape and assault by penetration. Witnessing such an event is likely to be traumatic and support may be required.

The school or college should be doing all they can to ensure both the victim and alleged perpetrator, and any witnesses, are not being bullied or harassed, including online or by social media

A whole school or college approach to safeguarding, a culture that makes clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment is always unacceptable, and a strong preventative education programme will help create an environment in which all children at the school or college are supportive and respectful of their peers when reports of sexual violence or sexual harassment are made.

It is important that schools and colleges keep their policies, processes and curriculum under constant review to protect all their children. Reports of sexual violence and/or harassment, especially where there is evidence of patterns of behaviour, may point to environmental and or systemic problems that could and should be addressed by updating relevant policies, processes or relevant parts of the curriculum.

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