Peer-on-Peer Abuse in Schools and Colleges
Recent events and media coverage have brought to light the issue and scale of peer-on-peer abuse in schools and colleges. We've been deeply saddened to see the extent of sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment suffered by children and young people at the hands of their peers.
Schools should offer a sanctuary to their students, creating safe spaces and a culture which enables them to thrive, rather than survive. To achieve the best outcomes for their students, school staff need support and guidance to be able to handle, intervene and prevent incidents of this nature effectively, swiftly and professionally.
Because of this, and in light of the fact that it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, we have updated and republished our advice and supporting resources on peer-on-peer abuse in schools and colleges.
What Is Peer-On-Peer Abuse?
Peer-on-peer abuse is a growing concern and one that we have little reliable data on at present. Childline reported a 29% increase in children seeking help due to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. There is evidence to suggest that criminal exploitation and sexual abuse, both directly and in the form of grooming, are among the biggest concerns here. Peer-on-peer abuse includes:
- Physical and sexual abuse
- Sexual harassment and violence
- Emotional harm
- On and offline bullying
- Teenage relationship abuse
- Gang activity
This list is not exhaustive. The perpetrator and victim should be of a similar age and be under 18 years old. There are more details of some of these forms below.
Bullying (including Cyberbullying)
Bullying (including Cyberbullying) is defined as “behaviour by an individual or group, usually repeated over time, which intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally.”
Bullying can start with seemingly trivial events - such as name calling. It can happen anywhere - at school, at home or online, at any time. It’s usually repeated over time and can cause physical and emotional hurt. A child that is being bullied may feel like there’s no escape. There are many different forms of bullying: This abuse is prevalent in the real world as well as the virtual, and as such can go unnoticed.
Of concern is the people that dismiss peer-on-peer abuse as ‘children being children’. Policies and practice should ensure that this is never the case and it is dealt with as stringently as any other safeguarding concern.
- ‘Cyberbullying’: involves sending inappropriate or hurtful text messages, emails or instant messages, posting malicious material online (e.g. on social networking websites) or sending or posting offensive or degrading images and videos. Cyberbullying will be of particular concern during Lockdown, when children and young people are working remotely
- Sexual, Sexist and Transphobic Bullying: includes any behaviour, whether physical or nonphysical, where sexuality is used as a weapon
- Homophobic Bullying: targets someone because of their sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation)
- Disablist Bullying: targets a young person solely based on their disability
Gang Activity and Youth Violence
This includes where a child or young person can be exploited (sexually and/or physically/criminally) by a gang, but this is not necessarily the reason why gangs are formed. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has defined CSE in gangs and groups as:
- Gangs - mainly comprising men and boys aged 13-25 years old, who take part in many forms of criminal activity (e.g. knife crime or robbery) who can engage in violence against other gangs, and who have identifiable markers, for example a territory, a name, or sometimes clothing.
- Groups - involves people who come together in person or online for the purpose of setting up, co-ordinating and / or taking part in the sexual exploitation of children in either an organised or opportunistic way. Types of exploitation may include using sex as a weapon between rival gangs, as a form of punishment to fellow gang members and / or a means of gaining status within the hierarchy of the gang. Children and young people may be forced to gain entry into the gang by carrying out an initiation process which may be harmful to them and / or may inflict harm to others. Where abuse takes place in a gang environment, members may perceive the abuse as normal, as well as accepting it as a way of achieving a respected status / title within the gang.
Who Is At Risk Of Peer-On-Peer Abuse?
Research suggests that girls and young women are more at risk of abusive behaviours perpetrated by their peers; however it can also affect boys and young men, those with special educational needs and disabilities, LGBTQ Children and young people, Looked After Children and those who are from different communities.
Scenarios may include a child or young person being forced or coerced into sexual activity by peers.
Supporting The Victim and Alleged Perpetrator
Abuse that involves or is believed to involve sexual assault and violence must always result in a multi-agency response. As well as supporting and protecting the victim, professionals need to consider whether the perpetrator could be a victim of abuse too and too have experienced abuse. Perpetrators may also be in danger of being subjected to abuse post an allegation. Measures to support them should be put into place here too.
Peer pressure can be huge for children and young people and there will be times when the abuse, in whatever form it takes, looks consensual. This is another reason why a multi- agency approach is needed, potentially involving both social care and the police, in order to ensure investigations are properly carried out.
In situations where the children or young people are in the same class or even school, risk assessments should be put into place, to safeguard both parties, these should consider how best to keep the two parties apart whilst at school and also whilst traveling to and from school. If the allegation involves rape and/ or assault by penetration, then the statutory guidance states that the perpetrator must be removed from any shared classes. Guidance is clear that any separation arrangements must continue for as long as is necessary to make sure children are safe.
Consideration to where the alleged abuse took place must also be given and should include ways that this can be made safe/ mitigated. Schools should consider this not only for their grounds and buildings but also if the abuse took place in a public space. Whilst the school cannot act on this alone, again the multi-agency approach can be vital here.
Avoiding peer-on-peer abuse will depend on how well trained your staff are, how well they and pupils adhere to policies, such as the behaviour policy and Acceptable Use policies, alongside Anti-Bullying and Child Protection policies and practice. It is also key that parents are aware of these, and what constitutes acceptable language and behaviour at all times from the pupils- both within and outside of school. The school’s ethos is also key; children should feel safe in coming forwards, know that they will be heard and confident that their concerns will be dealt with fairly and honestly, whilst protecting and supporting all parties involved.
Further Information And Support On Peer-on-Peer Abuse:
- Watch a recording of our free peer-on-peer abuse webinar recorded on 22nd April
- Download our free peer-on-peer abuse briefing
- Read our blog - Tackling Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Schools - Creating a Safer Culture
Written by Jackie Shanks 14th April 2020, updated and republished by Sam Franklin 1st April 2021
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