Whenever a decision involves heightened emotions, teachers will do well to take a moment to make sure that their response to the disclosure is appropriate - it is important to display the right behaviour and reactions for the protection of the pupils involved.
This situation raises legal issues surrounding confidentiality. Guidance published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families sets out seven golden rules to consider when deciding who to share the information with and seven questions to help the teacher reach the right decision. (www.dcsf.gov.ukeverychildmatters)
There are several steps that the teacher should undertake following a disclosure of this type. Primarily, the teacher should listen to the pupil and reassure her that she is not to blame and that she has done the right thing in disclosing this information, according to Dai Durbridge of Browne Jacobson solicitors. "The teacher should ask if there is anything else the girl wants to tell her about the incident," he says. "However, asking leading questions or interrogating the girl should be avoided as this could prejudice any subsequent police investigation and put the girl under unnecessary pressure."
It is important to make it clear that the information cannot be kept secret, says Chris Sweeney of Pivotal Education, behaviour and learning management specialists. "The teacher needs to say to the pupil that this is a sensitive issue and that the headteacher will have to be told," he says. "However, it is important that the pupil knows the teacher is listening and that their response mirrors the serious nature of the allegation."
According to the DCSF guidance, children aged 12 and over need to give consent to the information being passed on, but this depends on individual circumstances. "If the girl refuses, the teacher needs to consider whether she needs to share it without consent," says Mr Durbridge. "To decide, the teacher has a simple weighing up exercise to carry out - which is more important, maintaining the confidentiality or sharing the information to help safeguard this girl and possibly other pupils?"
The teacher should take notes at the time of the disclosure - but only if the pupil is comfortable with this. "Write down exactly what was said in the pupil's own words. When you have noted down your own words and the questions that you have asked, date the paper and file it in your records," says Mr Sweeney. "As soon as possible, meet with the designated person or 'named officer' within the school who has responsibility for child protection. It will be their responsibility to carry out an investigation and they will take non-judgmental statements from everyone involved."
In the long term, the school may want to discuss the causes and ways to prevent such incidents in future. "Some schools do seem to have a situation where there is a lot of physical 'play' between pupils around the school that can get out of hand and can create an atmosphere where this sort of assault is relatively common," says Marina Angadi, education director at Twist Partnership, a UK-based creative consultancy. "Children need clear and unambiguous boundaries and rules and it is difficult for them sometimes to understand where a line should be drawn."
There may be a need for all staff to discuss what happened and why, and to agree a course of action to stamp out this sort of behaviour. "The whole school may want to look at ways that they can get pupils to think about the way that they interact with one another and to think about issues of personal space, body language and communication," says Mrs Angadi. "There are many sexual health organisations that work with schools and deal with these topics very well."
- Tell the pupil that she is not to blame and that she has done the right thing in telling you.
- Take notes with the exact words that were said.
- Meet with the person that is responsible for child protection and refer your notes to them.
- Ask leading questions as this could prejudice any subsequent police investigation.
- Promise to keep the information secret.
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