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Schools are not immune to virulent sexual harassment

Hollywood’s ‘open secret’ about Harvey Weinstein is an example of the ‘bystander effect’ also present in education

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Hollywood’s ‘open secret’ about Harvey Weinstein is an example of the ‘bystander effect’ also present in education

Actress Katherine Kendall said “We all know it’s everywhere,” when she was interviewed by Channel 4 News at the weekend. She was talking about her sexual harassment by the film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The slew of allegations against Weinstein are shocking, yet have been described as an “open secret” in Hollywood.

Psychologists call it “bystander effect”: when the presence of others prevents people from intervening in a situation. If we think schools are immune, we’re kidding ourselves.

I had a conversation recently with a close friend and teacher of many years’ experience. He described a male teacher he had worked with who everybody suspected of having sexual relationships with female pupils – in fact, the teacher had married a former pupil and that relationship had broken down because he had cheated on her with another pupil. People did not report him because they were frightened, my friend said.

Our culture discourages us from passing on information if we have no direct evidence of wrongdoing, lest we end up spreading malicious gossip, writes the organisational psychologist Liane Davey in a piece called “A psychologist’s guide to speaking up against your industry’s Harvey Weinstein”.

Maybe another reason is when it comes to women – and girls – we do not spell out what counts as inappropriate behaviour clearly enough from the outset.

Reports of sexual offences increase

Thanks to investigations by committees of MPs and MSPs, a recent Panorama report, articles in Tes Scotland and our sister publication, Tes, sexual abuse in school between pupils is now getting the attention that it deserves.

Reports of sexual offences on schools’ premises increased from 386 in 2013-14 to 922 in 2016-17, according the Panorama investigation, which covered 31 police forces in England and Wales.

In Scotland, MSPs investigating bullying in schools recently heard accounts of a teacher failing to intervene as a boy walked around a classroom attempting to undo girls’ bras and of teachers ignoring boys who shouted out comments to girls such as “show us your boobs”.

The Scottish Parliament’s education committee has criticised the “patchy” approach to sex and relationships education in personal and social education (PSE) lessons, highlighting the failure to cover consent consistently. Now a review of PSE led by the schools inspectorate is underway.

Katie Horsburgh – an S6 pupil who turned girls’ personal testimonies about sexual abuse in school into a short film – also highlighted higher-quality sex and relationships education, with a focus on consent, as a means of tackling the problem. She went on to call for a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment in schools.

A Girlguiding UK survey found that 64 per cent of girls aged 11-16 said that school staff sometimes or always tell girls to ignore incidents of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, only 42 per cent of girls said that sexual harassment incidents were always taken seriously by their teachers.

This inconsistency in reaction blurs boundaries and brings ambiguity to situations where the response should be crystal clear.

Perhaps sexual abuse and harassment is everywhere, but our schools must be the priority when it comes to stamping it out. Action would protect girls today and leave no room for confusion about what counts as appropriate behaviour in the future.


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