Edward Grange, Partner at Corker Binning and Jessica Maguire, Legal Assistant at Corker Binning

#EveryonesInvited: Now the conversation has started it must continue if society is to work together to eradicate sexual harassment in schools and colleges 

Concerns of the existence of a rape culture in schools, colleges and universities have dominated the headlines. This media onslaught was stimulated by publication of thousands anonymous online testimonies, in which young people (mostly female) have detailed their accounts of their sexual harassment, abuse and assault that they suffered whilst at school or college. It has led to alarm that schools have in the past (and are still) failing to safeguard young people, in particular girls and young women in their care.

The testimonies are published on the website, “Everyone’s Invited”, which is an online movement aimed at ‘exposing and eradicating rape culture’.

The movement follows on from where the #MeToo Campaign left off and has gathered momentum in the weeks following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard that sparked vigils across England leading to increased conversations around female safety.

Some of the named establishments have responded by saying they will take any allegations made ‘very seriously’ and will investigate ‘fully any specific allegations’. Too little too late for those who suffered sexual harassment because the culture was left embedded and unchallenged.

The website in particular raises the concern that some behaviours like ‘upskirting’ or the nonconsensual sharing of intimate photos have been normalized in some schools and universities with the movement providing resources for those concerned to write to those establishments, asking them to address the rape cultures they are tolerating.

The Met Police have confirmed they are reviewing the content of the published testimonies and have begun the process of contacting those schools, colleges and universities it can identify. It is understood that the police have directly received a number of reports of specific offences which it is investigating, with ‘Everyone’s Invited’ providing on their website, information on how to report a crime.

There have been calls for an independent inquiry into the safeguarding of children within schools. An imminent statement from the Government is anticipated.

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

The starting point is the ‘Keeping Children safe in Education statutory guidance’ for schools and colleges that was updated by the Department for Education in January 2021. Schools and colleges in England must have regard to it when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

It is to be read in conjunction with the departmental advice on ‘sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges, last published in May 2018.

The latter contains some shocking statistics that are borne out by the recent revelations from the testimonies on ‘Everyone’s Invited’:

  • The Women and Equalities committee (WEC) found a number of large scale surveys find girls consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools and colleges.
  • Girlguiding's Girls' Attitudes Survey 2017 found 64% of girls aged 13-21 had experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment at school or college in the past year. This included 39% having their bra strap pulled by a boy and 27% having their skirts pulled up within the last week.
  • Over a third (37%) of female students and 6% of male students at mixed-sex schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.
  • Almost a quarter (24%) of female students and 4% of male students at mixed-sex schools have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school.
  • Girls (14%) were significantly more likely than boys (7%) to report that their partner had pressured them to share nude images of themselves in the last year.
  • Girls are significantly more likely to be victimised with unwanted sexual messages and images from their peers online, with 31% of female respondents aged 13-17 years saying they had experienced this in the last year compared to 11% of male respondents.

The May 2018 guidance is due to be updated in September 2021. The recent revelations arising from the Everyone’s Invited site may bring that proposed date for publication forward. The schools that have been identified in the testimonies will now come under enormous scrutiny to ensure that they have not engendering a rape culture through failing to take appropriate action against those who have been suspected of inappropriate and in some instances criminal behavior.

Whether as a result of being unable to address inappropriate sexual behavior or worse, showing an unwillingness to do so, a failure to investigate or take a complaint seriously (whatever the reason) could land the school in troubled waters, not just from a reputation viewpoint. There will likely be increased calls for Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate to carry out unannounced ad hoc inspections at schools that could result, in a worst case scenario for the school, in closure.

Those responsible for safeguarding in schools (whether state or private) would do well by (re)-reading paragraph five of the May 2018 statutory guidance which highlights what schools and colleges should be aware of the importance of:

  • making clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment is not acceptable, will never be tolerated and is not an inevitable part of growing up;
  • not tolerating or dismissing sexual violence or sexual harassment as “banter”, “part of growing up”, “just having a laugh” or “boys being boys”;
  • challenging behaviour (potentially criminal in nature), such as grabbing bottoms, breasts and genitalia and flicking bras and lifting up skirts. Dismissing or tolerating such behaviours risks normalising them; and
  • understanding that all of the above can be driven by wider societal factors beyond the school and college, such as everyday sexist stereotypes and everyday sexist language.

Educating young people and their parents should be at the heart of any reform to eradicate the ‘rape culture’ said to be rife in many of our schools and colleges. With the introduction of compulsory Relationship and Sex Education (“RSE”) classes from September 2020, now is a perfect opportunity for open and frank conversations to be had with children to address the challenging topics and sensitive issues raised as a result of the Everyone’s Invited testimonies. Rather than addressing the ‘birds and the bees’ the classes should include a discussion regarding:

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

The senior Met police officer in charge of the investigation into the rape culture within schools, Detective Superintendent Mel Laremore, has offered to send her officers into schools to teach boys about the law regarding consent. This offer extends to private schools, not just state schools that are part of the Safer Schools Partnership.

Whilst the Met police have reacted strongly to the testimonies of abuse in our schools, it must be careful to ensure that its response does not offer victims false hope or, indeed stigmatise those under suspicion who may never be charged with a criminal offence.

The Met police simply will not have the resources to investigate over 6,000 allegations and will likely seek to follow up on the more serious offences said to have been committed. In addition, some victims, although content and brave to share their experiences on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ may not wish for the matter to be followed up and investigated by the police.

That does not appear to have been the purpose behind the creation of the website, rather the collective responsibility of the community of victims that have come forward ‘lies in improving and healing the wounds we have uncovered’ and urges its community to ‘[build] on the mistakes of the past and [work] towards reconciliation and creating a new future’.

Those that do become suspects in police investigations (where there is reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed) will be interviewed under caution and could spend many months under investigation whilst the police continue to gather evidence and seek advice and guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service. During this time, suspects may not be allowed to return to school and their safety and wellbeing will also need to be managed by the school system.

A difficult time lies ahead for all involved, but the conversation has started and must continue if society is to work together to eradicate what is said to have become the norm.

Edward Grange, Partner at Corker Binning and Jessica Maguire, Legal Assistant at Corker Binning

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