Content warning: Please be aware that the following blog includes cases relating to the sexual assault of young people.
On Monday night BBC Panorama revealed there have been almost 30,000 reports of children sexually abusing other children in the UK in the last four years. For many people sitting at home the revelation that children as young as six had been sexually abused by another child was an eye opening look into the reality many young people face. Sadly, this is a reality that many practitioners we work with are already aware of. The attention Panorama has brought to the issue of peer-on-peer abuse is a good step to ensuring that more people are aware of, and understand, the different forms that sexual abuse can take.
The program highlighted not only the abuse that many young experience by other young people, but also that it happens in lots of different places – a park, the street, at a party or in school. This echoes what we at the Contextual Safeguarding team have been saying for many years. From our research we know that young people experience abuse in a range of different places. These places are not coincidental but are part of the reason abuse can happen. It could be the unlit street with no CCTV, the park with overgrown bushes or that staff in the milkshake shop don’t know what to look out for or who to report concerns to. It is essential to think about these places in how we respond.
Take schools as an example. During the programme we were told about the true story of Emily – who was sexually assaulted in class – which highlighted how young people can be abused in school. Over the past year we have been carrying out research into harmful sexual behaviour in schools across England. What young people are telling us is that harm in schools can take many forms – from name calling and unwanted touching to violent and abusive sexual assaults including rape. The programme also touched on the fact that in many instances some forms of harm have been normalised. Accounts in the programme also suggested how the normalisation of sexual abuse acts as a barrier to helping young people and preventing abuse happening in the first place. We have found this in our work. For example, when auditing local responses to peer-on-peer abuse we have heard of schools where girls are told to wear shorts under their skirts to stop students pulling them up, rather than educating and preventing it happening in the first place.
The programme also highlighted how without robust guidance many schools are having to find their own way. In our work teachers and other school staff have told us that this means they often feel unsure of what to do when abuse happens between students. Yet the programme really only touched the surface of what we know about peer-on-peer abuse. Listening to the story of a young girl having to take an exam in the same room as the person that abused her may have left many viewers at home asking why schools are not doing more. Why not expel him? Or arrest him? But we need more than a criminal response; we need a response that protects young people – all young people. What we have seen from research over years is that when we only respond to individuals we do nothing to change the environment that let the abuse happen in the first place. I have reviewed cases where almost identical sexual assaults happen in the same place a few years later – a park or a stairwell – because nothing was done to change that place or to support other young people that witnessed harm.
Through the work of the Contextual Safeguarding team we have found that responses need to think about where harm is happening. Responses must meet the needs of young people but also understand how places are part of the equation. This might mean giving support to the young person affected, working with transport providers, following bullying procedures, building sex and relationships education throughout the curriculum, ensuring incidents from name-calling to touching are appropriately reported and recorded or changing the built environment so that areas are well lit and supervised. When harm is happening between young people, and taking place outside of the home, we need safeguarding responses that work with the people in those places – be it a teacher, a park warden or local business – to help protect young people and prevent it from happening.
The opening sequence of Monday’s programme stated that this is a “hidden world of childhood pain”. But what we know is that peer-on-peer abuse is not hidden. It may be that we are not looking for it, aren’t listening or in many cases the harm has become normalised. At the same time many professionals, including teachers in schools, do not know how to respond and don’t have the tools available to allow them to. In spring 2018 the Contextual Safeguarding team will be releasing a range of tools and training resources to support local authorities and schools with how to respond to harmful sexual behaviour. This will include webinars for schools, briefing reports and tutorials. We hope this will provide a step towards the sexual harm that Panorama have highlighted this week.
The programme is available to watch via this link until September 2018.
Dr Jenny Lloyd
Senior Research Fellow
Bio: Dr Jenny Lloyd is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire within the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking. As a member of the Contextual Safeguarding team, she works on two research projects; within Hackney children and families social care to embed a contextual safeguarding approach, and with Ofsted to develop tools for identifying enablers and barriers to tackling harmful sexual behaviour in schools. Previously she has carried out local area audits to assess responses to peer-on-peer abuse and research into police models used to tackle child sexual exploitation.