Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Turning a blind eye to child-on-child harmful sexual behaviours at school

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This blog was written by Janice Waters MSc RN.

More than 5,500 sexual offences and 600 incidents of rape took place on school premises during the years 2012-2015. Alleged victims and perpetrators were reported to be as young as five years old (BBC 2015). Often referred to as harmful sexual behaviours or HSB, definitions refer to inappropriate child sexual behaviour that is considered to be harmful or abusive towards both the child exhibiting the behaviours, and those experiencing them (Hackett et al. 2016). Behaviours include sexually explicit words and phrases, inappropriate touching, the use of sexual violence, sexual threats and full penetrative sex with other children or adults (NSPCC 2018). HSB is also conducted online (Belton and Hollis 2016).

National guidance aimed at responding to HSB seeks to support professionals through development of regional multi-agency strategies and risk assessment tools to inform interventions tailored to the needs of each child (NICE 2016). Whilst research shows that schools can safely manage most cases of HSB through the use of anti-bullying and child protection policies, many face difficulties distinguishing between behaviours of concern as compared to those of normal sexual development (Hackett and Taylor 2008). This is supported by additional research which reveals that even professionals specifically working with children who exhibit HSB, may be unable to agree as to what constitutes a behaviour of concern (Vosmer et al. 2009). Of concern is that teachers’ voices and lived experiences of child-on-child HSB at school is missing from national guidance, meaning it may be of little use to schools. A further concern is that schools are rarely included within multi-agency discussions due to the reluctance of multi-agency professionals to share information with them, fearing this would be detrimental to the child (Fox 2013).

A study carried out as part of a recently submitted thesis for a professional doctorate in advanced healthcare practice, has revealed unique insights and the turning of a blind eye into child-on-child HSB at school. No previous literature about teachers’ lived experiences of HSB at school was found to exist meaning this study was the first of its kind. The study used Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis to explore the lived experiences of nine participants, five male and four female teachers at three different schools in the UK, two special and one mainstream school. The findings are discussed through the analogy of the three wise monkeys; to see, hear and speak no evil. In Western culture the three wise monkeys make reference to the lack of moral responsibility on the part of those who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, look the other way, feign ignorance or turn a blind eye. Notably, Mizaru the first monkey, covers his eyes whilst Kikazaru the second, covers his ears and the third Iwazaru, covers his mouth.

A ‘see no evil’ approach to child-on-child harmful sexual behaviours at school was observed. Confusion existed as to what constituted inappropriate sexual behaviours meaning these were often ignored under a catch all of poor behaviour. Children exhibiting HSB were stigmatised and stereotyped according to their backgrounds, meaning inappropriate sexualised behaviours were accepted in the special schools as a normal part of the day, related to gender, hormones and a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. Across the special schools and the mainstream school, inappropriate sexualised behaviour was observed to be misinterpreted as childhood play. Inconsistent responses were related to teachers’ own values, beliefs and prior experiences. Whilst HSB between children was accepted at special school, when behaviours were directed towards staff, this was considered a mental health issue and outside the remit of the school. At the mainstream school, child protection training had failed to alert teachers to the risks of child-on-child HSB.

A ‘hear no evil ‘approach was influenced by taboos associated with children who exhibit inappropriate sexualised behaviour. Uniquely, both female and male participants expressed feelings of vulnerability associated with children who exhibit HSB. Whilst females were concerned about personal safety, males were concerned about loss of school reputation and careers. A hierarchical culture of blame was observed to exist both within the schools and to emanate from the local authority who blamed the school when HSB occurred. Taboos associated with child-on-child HSB contributed to the topic being ignored and children demonised in their communities.

A ‘speak no evil’ approach was supported by the lack of external and local authority support. HSB was considered as being too expensive to manage at school, revealing a sense of child containment rather than support. Poor information sharing was evident, contributing to children being denied access to schools or, once at school, participation in activities considered as too risky. The mainstream school, with no prior knowledge or experience of child-on-child HSB, experienced an almost complete lack of response from their local authority when HSB occurred, an experience that fundamentally changed the school’s relationship with the local authority. Thus, the turning of a blind eye to child-on-child HSB at school is established.

With these findings in mind, it is useful to consider the Buddhist version of the wise monkeys which includes a fourth monkey, Shizaru. This monkey covers his genitals to indicate that he is ‘doing no evil’, meaning he will knowingly do nothing to cause harm. Given the long term consequences and poor outcomes from child-on-child HSB, shown to include unemployment, family breakdown and the removal of their own children by social services in later life (Hackett et al. 2015), I suggest that the following recommendations are made to avoid the turning of a blind eye to child-on-child HSB:

  • HSB between children should be clearly referred to as ‘child-on-child HSB’ in all guidance and training. This is because the concept of peer-on-peer abuse is too wide and does not specify the type of abuse under discussion.
  • National and school-based guidance for HSB should ensure teachers’ voices are included to confirm its relevance for schools.
  • Child protection training must include current knowledge as to the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, to include children. Time should be allowed to discuss personal and professional beliefs about children, sexuality and taboos.
  • The sharing of information about a child’s sexualised behaviour is fundamental to child protection within school. This information must be used to enable all children to interact equally and safely at school and never be used to exclude.
  • Local authority and multi-agency groups associated with child-on-child HSB should ensure schools are involved at all times to remove and prevent hierarchies of blame associated with HSB.



Posted: 09 Oct 2019

Author: Destiny

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