Education secretary urges abuse victims to report their experiences

England’s education secretary has urged school pupils who are victims of sexual abuse to come forward to report their experiences, after thousands of young people published testimonies of “rape culture” at the hands of their peers in an online campaign. Writing on Twitter about “shocking and abhorrent” allegations made in recent days, Gavin Williamson said on Monday evening that “no school . . . should ever be an environment where young people feel unsafe, let alone somewhere that sexual abuse can take place”. The intervention follows the rapid growth of Everyone’s Invited, an online platform on which more than 9,000 people have reported incidents of sexual assault, harassment, violence and misogyny in education since June.

The movement, set up by 22-year-old Soma Sara, has drawn new attention to sexual abuse of pupils by other young people, raising questions over wider attitudes to sexual violence and presenting institutional challenges for schools. Commenting for the first time on the allegations on Monday, Williamson said: “Any victim of these sickening acts that we’ve seen reported should raise their concerns with someone they trust, whether that’s a family member or friend, a teacher, social worker or the police. “We will take appropriate action,” he added.

Earlier on Monday Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk Police and in charge of directing policy on child safeguarding for forces in England and Wales, told BBC Radio’s Today programme it was “reasonable to predict” many more people would come forward with accounts after the number of testimonies on the platform increased by thousands in a few days. He referred to 2016 reporting of sexual assaults against young footballers, when the decision of a few victims to make public their experiences prompted more to come forward, leading to a number of convictions of coaches. The as yet unreported accounts would probably include stories of abuse from places other than the private schools that have been the initial focus of stories on the Everyone’s Invited website, said Bailey, the lead for child safeguarding on the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

“We’ll start to see reports of abuse, of current abuse, of non-recent abuse, in the university sector, the state sector and in the private sector as well,” Bailey said. “This is not something that’s exclusively in the private sector.” There has previously been scrutiny of independent schools in coverage of the allegations. Dulwich College and Haberdashers’ Aske’s, two London fee-paying schools, feature among the institutions mentioned.

Highgate School, a fee-paying establishment in north London that was the subject of allegations, appointed jurist Dame Anne Rafferty to lead an independent review into “the issues raised” by the accounts, and will shortly publish an anti-sexism plan. “We fully support and commend the actions of our pupils, standing in solidarity with all victims of sexual harassment or abuse,” the school said.

Pupils demonstrate outside Highgate School, a fee-paying establishment in north London. The school held an independent review after it was the subject of allegations (C) John Sibley/Reuters

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, a lobby group that represents more than 1,300 institutions, said last week that schools were “having meaningful conversations with their students” and that some had announced external independent reviews in response to the accusations.

However, the organisers of Everyone’s Invited stressed it was now receiving rising numbers of allegations from other educational settings. They said early analysis showed that between March 9 and March 26 there had been a 33 per cent increase in testimonies from state schools to the site and a 44 per cent increase in testimonies relating to universities. The wave of publicity prompted the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, a government-appointed panel producing a series of reports on the issue, to appeal on Monday to victims to approach its Truth Project with their stories.

The project is seeking to record victims’ experiences so that they can be used to strengthen future protections. The inquiry is due later this year to publish a report detailing sexual abuse of children in schools and to recommend steps to protect them better. London’s Metropolitan Police said on Friday that the force was aware of the accounts on Everyone’s Invited and had received “a number of reports of specific offences”.

Detective Superintendent Mel Laremore, the force’s lead for rape and sexual offences, said it was “deeply concerning” to see the number of accounts on the website. “We’re working closely with school staff to ensure anyone who may have been a victim-survivor of sexual assault and feels able and willing to report to us can do so,” she said. The allegations received on Everyone’s Invited are the latest to shine a light on police forces’ generally poor record of bringing perpetrators of sexual offences to court.

The issue was highlighted earlier this month amid controversy over the Met’s handling of the killing of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who disappeared while walking home through Clapham, south London. A serving Met officer, Wayne Couzens, is awaiting trial for Everard’s kidnap and murder. However, Jennifer Brown, a forensic psychologist at the London School of Economics, said the main message of the flood of complaints was that both boys and girls were signalling they wanted “more help” with negotiating healthy intimate relationships and there was a question of whether individual cases should be treated as primarily educational, health or criminal justice matters.

The rising number of reports of rape and other sexual offences meant police forces were already dealing with “high volumes of reporting”, Brown pointed out.

“Some sort of triaging might help to direct the young person needing support to the right agency,” she said.

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