We need to talk about sexual misconduct in schools

It can be difficult to imagine that sexual abuse happens in schools, supposedly havens of safety. Emma Kell looks at how best to support its victims

Emma Kell

Woman, hidden by shadows

Sexual misconduct in schools is a difficult, painful and deeply uncomfortable issue for many people.

We simply don’t want to imagine that such things could happen in what we imagine are havens of nurture and safety. 

But what happened to the women whose words I use here cannot – must not – keep happening.

Eleven people have contacted me about this issue. Ten are women. Eight are victims and three were witnesses, or were supporting others. 

Of the victims, six have since left teaching. Some have shared the details of what happened; others have not. I will not be sharing any details here. 

Instead, the aim of this piece is to start to open a dialogue about how we can support our colleagues should the unthinkable occur. 

The words quoted here are from two victims who have agreed that their reflections can be shared anonymously. I have changed names. 

Catastrophically betrayed

Freya was sexually abused repeatedly by two colleagues. She launched legal proceedings against the school, but was forced to abandon them because of a lack of support from witnesses, who felt threatened when the school leader chose to lead the investigation. 

She has left teaching now, and actively supports others who’ve been affected similarly. 

Sara was sexually abused by a student some weeks ago. She is currently signed off work. Her school has yet to acknowledge the abuse or to offer support. 

Both Freya and Sara feel catastrophically betrayed by their schools. In both cases, their traumas have been persistently belittled and minimised. 

I would like to believe there are examples of schools providing excellent support in such situations. However, it feels absolutely essential that colleagues and leaders are able to draw some urgent and essential lessons from the devastating experiences of these two women. 

These are the key points that everyone working in a school should understand. 

Legal action isn’t always the answer

The instinct of many (including, until very recently, myself) is to tell a victim of sexual assault to call the police immediately. 

Legal action or grievance against the school may well be desirable further down the line – and keeping detailed records and accounts of all events surrounding the assault is essential. 

However, Freya points out, while cases of reported sexual abuse have risen dramatically, criminal charges are still rare.

Her own legal case fell apart when those who’d agreed to be witnesses withdrew their support when the school director and the school’s legal team got involved. Without witnesses, it was her word against that of her abuser. 

Specialist emotional support comes first

Victims have, says Freya, “a huge psychological mountain to climb”. Every case is completely different, and every individual will react in a unique way. 

But the extent of the vulnerability of those affected must never be underestimated. If someone you work with has been sexually assaulted, they need urgent, expert support from someone qualified in trauma therapy. 

Below, I have suggested some sources of support, recommended by those who have used them.

Misinformed support can do more harm than good

Sara has been actively seeking support from a number of different sources, but is left feeling “kind of sick of talking – it makes me feel so helpless”. 

Some of the non-specialists in sexual assault and misconduct failed to grasp the seriousness of her case and thus failed to begin to meet her needs.

Freya talks of some early counselling sessions that diverted her to talking about her childhood. Given her situation, this felt like victim blaming. 

The isolation resulting from well-meaning but ill-fitting support can further add to the suffering of victims.

Victims of sexual misconduct need to know two things 

These need to be repeated daily: you did not deserve this, and you are not alone.

You do not deserve this
The self-doubt that can come in the aftermath of sexual assault is also highly complex and very real for both Sara and Freya. 

“I still keep thinking,” says Sara, “was my skirt too short? Was I wearing too much perfume? Could I have done something to avoid being physically cornered by him?”

What happened was wrong. What happened was not – and could never be – the fault of the victim.

If you are ever in a position where you are supporting someone in this situation, you cannot repeat this often enough.

You are not alone
Both Freya and Sara have said repeatedly that knowing they are not alone offers some real reassurance. 

The topic of sexual misconduct is still such a taboo that both admit that they have lost friends over it through lack of understanding – or because their friends simply were too uncomfortable to contemplate what had happened. 

Unconditional support is key. You can’t fix it the situation, but you can ask, “What can I do to help?” 

To share your story (with no identifying details) with others who have been affected, visit the #MeToo Tell Your Story website.  

Look for signs and bear witness

Sexual abuse can be hidden for long periods of time. 

If you know or suspect that sexual misconduct is taking place, it can put you in a really difficult position – you may have a good relationship with the perpetrator. 

But it is your moral duty to report what is going on. 

Beware Darvo

The reputation of schools is all-important, and it is understandable that school leaders might not want such horrors to be associated with their schools. 

More common, I suspect, is that leaders are simply not equipped or trained to deal with such incidents. This can result in something called Darvo: deny, attack, reverse victim-offender order.

This can be described as a specific type of “victim blaming” – the process by which the victim’s credibility is brought into question and the harm done to them is minimised. It is a deeply destructive facet of school culture, which can cause untold damage to victims and potential victims of sexual misconduct.

Don’t stereotype victims

At the end of my discussion with Freya, she made one more plea: “Please don’t make victims of sexual abuse out to be helpless, meek creatures.” 

Of course, victims of sexual assault come in an infinite variety of forms, but it can be tempting to stereotype. From my conversations with them, both Sara and Freya are feisty, sparky, highly educated individuals determined to speak out. (Freya wonders how much a desire to "put her in her place" played a role in the abuse.) 

Both Sara and Freya are determined to overcome the horrors that have happened to them, and determined to speak out on behalf of others.

This too shall pass

I consulted one more victim of sexual abuse when planning for this piece. Not a teacher, but someone who speaks out regularly on this subject. She has given me permission to use her words:

“One particularly dark day for me (I had been silent crying on the Tube), a stranger passed me a note as she disembarked. It simply read: ‘This too shall pass.’ I didn’t believe it then. But it was true.”

Sources of support 

If you have been affected by sexual misconduct in schools, you can share your story on the #MeToo website.

These organisations could also be helpful: 

Victim Focus
End Violence Against Women

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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