Rising problem of sexual bullying in schools in UK
06 January 2009. UK.
When parents drop their children at the school gates they do so in the trust that they will be safe until home time. But are they?
We know that bullying, be it verbal or physical, happens in our schools and in its worst forms can ruin lives. The key to ending the torment is speaking out, but shame and fear often makes this difficult to do.
And, as Panorama reports in Kids Behaving Badly, children are being subjected to a type of bullying which makes it even harder to speak out – sexual bullying.
This can be anything from sexualised name-calling to spreading rumours about someone’s sexual behaviour, to criminal offences such as assault and rape.
Michele Elliott from Kidscape, the first UK charity established specifically to prevent bullying and child sexual abuse, says it has seen a dramatic rise in the problem:
“Certainly over the last four or five years on the Kidscape helpline we used to get maybe one or two calls a year about sexual bullying, but now we are getting two or three calls a week,” she said.
The most recent government figures show that in 2006-07 there were 3,500 fixed period exclusions and 140 expulsions from schools in England for sexual misconduct – anything from explicit graffiti to serious sexual assault, even rape.
Two hundred and eighty of those expulsions were from primary schools and in 20 cases the child responsible was just five years old.
Ms Elliott said that “sexual bullying has almost become a way of asserting your power over others and for that reason it is disturbing”.
But experts say that all too often cases go unreported or are written off as youngsters experimenting.
“I think it’s really difficult for people generally to think about sexually harmful behaviour happening by young people, towards young people in schools,” said Paula Telford from the NSPCC. “But it is an issue, it is happening, and we need to acknowledge it and we need to respond to it.”
To get an idea of how prevalent the problem is Panorama worked with the charity Young Voice to question youngsters aged 11-19 about their experiences.
Of the 273 young people who answered the questionnaire, 28 children said they had been forced to do something sexual they did not want to do.
One girl in the North West of England said she was forced to perform oral sex on a fellow pupil and one girl said she had been raped.
The NSPCC says such experiences are not unusual.
“We’ve had examples for instance of a 16-year-old boy who raped a much younger boy in a secluded setting in school,” Ms Telford said.
“We’ve had a 10-year-old who was forcing other children to perform sex acts on him, and performing sex acts on them. And we’ve had much younger children who’ve been inappropriately touching each other.”
The government is promising urgent action and England’s Department for Children, Schools and Families is due to publish guidelines on dealing with sexual bullying in the spring.
But, even in the most serious cases, those responsible are often not being prosecuted or even counselled.
A 13-year-old girl told Panorama she was subjected to steadily worsening sexual bullying by a boy in her school, which went on for months until she told her parents.
Her mother contacted the school and was told the boy would be spoken to and a letter would be sent to his parents, but he was allowed to remain in the girl’s class and no further action was taken.
It was only when the girl and her family reported the allegation to the police that the boy was made to switch classes – a situation which left the girl’s mother in despair.
“It’s inconceivable that somebody could be sexually assaulted and expected to go to school with them and be next to them or near them in a classroom,” she said.
Lack of support
And the consequences of sexual bullying in schools may go much further than the distress it causes at the time.
“When you look at the backgrounds of some adult sex offenders, you do see inappropriate sexual behaviour when they are younger, as well as other indicators,” Ms Elliott from Kidscape said.
“It doesn’t mean that every child who acts out sexually is going to become a sex offender, but we ignore it at our peril.”
However, even when the school does take the matter seriously, it can still be the case that the perpetrator is better supported than the victim.
Panorama talked to the father of a 15-year-old girl who was lured into an empty classroom where a group of boys, also pupils at the school, forced her to perform oral sex on one of them.
The girl spoke out about the incident and her head teacher was quick to refer the matter to the police.
However, when the girl was too traumatised to return to school and her parents turned to their local council to arrange home tutoring, they were told that this facility was reserved for children who had been excluded from school – such as the boys who had assaulted her – not their victims.