Schools can learn from universities on sexual abuse case handling

Out-Law News | 08 Apr 2021 | 3:21 pm | 3 min. read

Schools can look to the UK’s universities sector for examples of policies and practices that can support students in reporting allegations of sexual abuse, according to legal experts.

Julian Sladdin and Stephanie Badrock of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, were commenting after the UK government asked Ofsted, the schools inspector in England, to “undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools”.

The review was commissioned after thousands of people used the Everyone’s Invited platform to anonymously report cases of sexual violence, abuse or other behaviour, like upskirting or the sharing of intimate images, described by the platform as a “gateway to criminal acts such as sexual assault or rape”. There have been more than 14,000 such testimonies submitted to date.

The campaign attracted significant media attention and commentary from politicians, including former members of a UK parliamentary committee – the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee – which produced a report in 2016 that looked at sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. According to the Guardian, Maria Miller MP, who chaired the committee at the time, said that while some recommendations from the committee’s report had been implemented and guidance updated on how schools should tackle cases of sexual abuse, “nothing has changed in the last five years”.

Sladdin and Badrock said that this recent focus on secondary schools highlights an issue that has been long overlooked due to previous focus on similar cases in higher education. While there were several universities also named in the reports submitted to the Everyone’s Invited platform, they said that universities have made a lot of progress in managing complaints of sexual abuse and harassment in recent years. They highlighted improvements universities have made to their prevention strategies, including through their participation in the Good Lad Initiative, recently renamed Beyond Equality, as well as the more robust response strategies they have developed through improved reporting mechanisms, safeguarding support, and disciplinary processes.  

“The spotlight is currently on secondary schools, with a significant number of state and private schools having been named on Everyone's Invited,” said Sladdin. “However, this is clearly a societal issue that has not been properly addressed at school and college level. In my view this is an issue where early education around expectations of behaviour plays an important role.”

“The university sector has grappled with this issue for a long time, in fact going back to the publication of the Zellick report in 1994 and the latest guidance published by Universities UK in partnership with Pinsent Masons in 2016. The university sector has made real progress in this area, but there is still much to do,” he said.

“However, there is the opportunity for secondary schools to learn from the good work universities have done and there are benefits for both in working together. Education at secondary school level will be key, as ultimately universities inherit pupils and the perceptions they have developed on what is or what is not acceptable behaviour. Another issue is getting students to have the confidence to come forward and trust that their case will be treated seriously. However, as universities have learnt, care should be taken with anonymous reporting sites. Anonymous allegations help in establishing the scale of the problem but are unlikely by themselves to lead to any more actual investigations unless reporting students are prepared to come forward. Unregulated websites could also increase the risk of data breaches or lead to allegations made which cannot be proven, or are possibility false,” Sladdin said.

Badrock said that schools like universities must also address the risk of failing to balance the rights of students who are reported, with the need to have a fair and impartial investigation and determination of allegations, and also, like the university sector, set a standard level of expectation for how allegations will be handed.

“The Office for Students has been consulting on its expectations for handling the issue of harassment and sexual misconduct,” she said. “Its proposals will set out expectations for universities and colleges to follow and how it will regulate harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students in higher education providers. Its proposed ‘statement of expectations’ is set to cover the processes, policies and systems it expects providers to have in place and is due to be published shortly.”

Sladdin and Badrock said that the seriousness of the issues being grappled with both in  universities and schools is not just a UK issue and that similar challenges continue to test educators overseas.

In the US, despite having well developed legislation relating to sexual harassment in universities, institutions often lack some of the systems already used in the UK. Brown University recently introduced an online reporting system to enable students to anonymously inform college officials of alleged sexual misconduct by other students. Women at the college had previously used a wall in a toilet at the college to list the names of men who had allegedly sexually assaulted them, according to the Times.