Schools are being urged to take more care over how they treat pupils who have been sexually abused by their classmates.
Tes can reveal that in many cases staff have failed rape victims by putting them back into classrooms with their alleged attackers.
MPs and charities have warned that schools are struggling to respond to ‘peer on peer’ sexual abuse because there is a “gap” in the government’s safeguarding guidance.
One senior figure on the frontline of supporting sufferers of sexual violence support told Tes she had nearly “lost count” of the number of victims she had seen who had been returned to the same class as their alleged attacker after reporting abuse.
Jocelyn Anderson, chief executive of West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre since 2004, said: “It happens regularly… it’s not unusual.”
Teachers ‘shooting in the dark’
Labour MP Jess Philips told Tes she had come across a number of such cases, and that schools were “shooting in the dark” because of a lack of guidance from government.
Victims can end up being returned to the same classroom as their attacker after reporting abuse when police or legal proceedings are ongoing.
Ms Anderson said that of the 99 new referrals involving peer-on-peer abuse that her centre received in 2015-16, across Herefordshire and Worcestershire, at least 10 pupils were put in the position of going back into the classroom with the person who attacked them.
“The schools tend to go down the line of ‘if it’s not proven by the police, there’s nothing we can do’,” she said. This amounted to “automatic prioritisation” of the attacker over the victim.
'There was nothing I could do'
One mother, whose 16-year-old daughter was raped out of school, said that her daughter’s alleged attacker, a fellow pupil, was arrested by police and released on bail, with one of the bail conditions being that he should not make contact with her. But the day after the arrest, the school put both pupils in the same classroom.
The girl’s mother said: "There was nothing I could do to get them to see that that is an impossible position to put her in." The school said there was nothing they could do because he was innocent until proven guilty.
"That is true in a legal sense, but it is absolutely not the line they would take if the alleged rapist were an adult. An adult on bail for rape would be suspended immediately."
The fact that schools are continuing to place victims in the same classrooms as their alleged attackers is partly attributed by MPs and charities to the inadequacy of government guidance on how such incidents should be dealt with. A report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in September says that schools lack "guidance, training and structures to deal with incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence", and that such cases were often "brushed aside…and not taken sufficiently seriously by school leaders".
A DfE spokeswoman said: "Sexual assault of any kind is an offence and must always be reported to the police. Schools should be safe places and we issue safeguarding guidance to protect pupils’ welfare. Our latest guidance was updated in September 2016 and includes a section on peer-on-peer abuse.
“We think the right laws are in place to enable teachers to take swift action to deal with underlying behaviours and stop it escalating but we will work with schools on whether further support is needed.”
This is an edited article from the 24 March edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here