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Key principles for responding to sexual and sexist bullying
The first, and most important, thing to consider is ‘Do I need to treat this as a safeguarding issue?’. If you have a concern about sexual and sexist bullying report it to your Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL). They will decide how to respond to the concern. If you think that a child is at risk of serious harm, follow your safeguarding policies.
ABA has developed a 3-Step approach to responding to all bullying incidents:
1. Listen and take complaints seriously
Children and young people frequently report that they are not listened to or believed when they try to report bullying – this is particularly the case for children and young people with SEND. Take every complaint seriously, talk to the young person about action they would like you to take and respect this as far as it allows you to keep the young person safe. Be mindful not to ask leading questions as this could bias the response to a serious incident that may need further escalation.
2. Sanction as appropriate but take every opportunity to educate
The sanctions you take will depend on the nature of the incident, the age and development level of the child or young person involved, and whether this is a repeated incident. While it is important that children recognise that their behaviour has consequences, your response should also include support for all children involved: the target may be fearful of repercussions from the peer group and may need protection and help to rebuild their confidence. The perpetrator will need support to change their behaviour and may also be at risk of harm. You should also consider what support they need and if a broader culture of sexual and sexist bullying and harm amongst the peer group needs to be addressed. It is also important to check for any bias that may be influencing your decision. Some minoritised ethnic groups are significantly more likely to be excluded for sexual misconduct, suggesting there is a worrying trend of systemic racism that can impact decision making.
3. Record and report
Record your action as soon as an incident has been disclosed to you using your school methods. Report all incidents to the designated safeguarding lead. Keep a record of incidents and actions. Bullying by its very nature is repetitive and so careful record keeping allows you to identify whether this is a oneoff incident, or a pattern of behaviour. It also provides important evidence should you need to sanction a child at a later date or provide information in the event of a further incident or investigation.
These can be challenging issues for children and young people to share so it is very important that they trust you to take it seriously and handle it sensitively. Staff in school cannot promise confidentiality and must pass on concerns about a child’s safety to the DSL and need to make a child aware that they have a responsibility to pass on the information to help keep them safe. The DSL can help you to explain to a young person what might happen next. Be aware of potential repercussions amongst the peer group. Only share on a need to know basis and consider carefully how and when you share information with parents and carers.
5. Do not forget incidents outside of the school environment
Bullying can occur outside of school as well as in school. Schools and colleges are increasingly aware of external factors which impact on children’s safety. This is called contextual safeguarding – see the Contextual Safeguarding Network resources for further support. All headteachers have powers to sanction behaviour outside of school to such an extent as is ‘reasonable’. Sexual and sexist bullying can also happen online, on the journey to and from school and on school trips and it is vital this is included in your anti-bullying policy.
While it is vital that schools respond in an appropriate and timely way to allegations of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, we have observed that in many of these cases, there is a build-up of more minor infractions which go unaddressed by the school, despite complaints from the pupil and their parents, and then a significant offence occurs. Schools should encourage an ethos of respect, clamp down early on any inappropriate behaviour, such as banter or jokes of a sexual nature, to avoid an escalation of harm and prevent a culture of sexual harassment and violence from taking root in the first place.
Richard Oldershaw, Coram’s Child Law Advice Service
Children and Young People Now (2022)