09 Apr 2021
by Sarah Erwin-Jones

According to testimonies, education establishments up to university level have been cited as environments where peer-on-peer sexual abuse has taken place.

Whether or not your organisation is identifiable on the platform, you will want to reassure service users and stakeholders how you create a safe, open and inclusive environment, and the steps you have taken to manage the risk of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

Policies and processes should be transparent and accessible, and action by responsible adults must be clear and consistent. Sexual violence and sexual harassment at any age is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated. It must not be passed off as banter or excused as part of growing up.

Publicising reporting and support

Most public service organisations have links on their websites signposting members of the public to the correct agencies if they are being harmed or have concerns that a child is at risk of harm. In any event a link to the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ 2015 guide What to do if you are worried a child is being abused should be made freely available.

Managing reports relating to educational settings

Part 5 of Keeping Children Safe in Education 2020 sets out how schools and colleges should manage reports of child-on-child sexual violence and harassment. That part of the guidance also links to a further Department for Education advice document from May 2018 Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges.

We recommend that those in senior leadership and safeguarding positions reacquaint themselves with the statutory guidance and ensure all staff are aware of it too. Evidence that staff understand how to manage reports.

Managing reports in other settings used by young people

It has to be easy for children and young people to come forward. What can you do right now? 

In terms of priorities it will help as a starting point to focus on raising awareness in those groups proven to be at most risk. Young people with intra-familial abuse in their histories or those living with domestic abuse are more likely to be vulnerable. Similarly, young people in care and those who have experienced loss of a parent, sibling or friend through bereavement are at greater risk. Start with developing policies and procedures that will work for them. Be prepared to review your policies once Ofsted has reported following its recently launched inquiry on this issue. 

Consider creating and sharing a sexual violence and misconduct policy with clear definitions. This should include unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which occurred in person, by letter, telephone, text, email or other electronic and/or social media. There is also a risk of vexatious or malicious reporting and your policy should anticipate and provide for this to promote consistency and fairness in dealing with allegations. 

In councils many allegations will be referred to a Local Authority Investigation Officer (LADO) if the police do not take the lead. 

When it comes to action to manage the report, the needs and wishes of the victim take centre stage. Considerations should include how the investigation proceeds and what support the victim requires.

Managing reports

If the alleged perpetrator never attended or no longer attends your establishment, it may be impossible to carry out a full investigation.

Whatever the circumstances, the focus should be on supporting the young person, acting in their best interests, and in accordance with the statutory guidance and other safeguarding resources. 

When an individual suggests they are considering bringing a claim for damages as a result of a sexual assault, inform your insurers. 

Sharing and retaining information

Data protection laws support relevant information sharing, not prevent you from it. When managing reports relating to current service users, personal data can be shared with children’s social care and the police in the same way as any other safeguarding concern.

If an allegation is made directly to the police, the police may approach you for personal data relating to the victim, the alleged perpetrator and/or other witnesses. Data protection law supports such sharing where the police require that personal data for the purposes of the prevention of or detection of crime, or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders. 

The duty remains on the data controller to share appropriately. Good practice dictates that unless the individuals have provided consent for their personal data to be shared with the police, the data controller should ask the police to complete a disclosure form to set out what information they need and why. The police will have their own version of this form (often called a 212 form: named after the relevant provision in the Data Protection Act 2018 – Paragraph 2 of Part 1 of Schedule 2). 

Data retention

A note on evidence retention: as yet we do not know what recommendations the Ofsted inquiry will make and whether the Review will extend beyond educational settings.

At this stage it would be wise to ringfence evidence relating to any and all reports of child-on-child sexual assault or sexual harassment, the subsequent steps taken to investigate them and the outcome of investigations.

Policy, procedure and staff training

The quality and content of staff training should also be reviewed to ensure it adequately covers this topic. Importantly, it should measure the outcomes of that training, so make sure you can evidence staff knowledge.