If there’s anything that has come out of the #MeToo campaign in the last week, it’s that sexual assault, harassment and abuse is far more prevalent than we’d like to think and that it’s time to speak frankly about how to best protect and safeguard children and young people. This blog isn’t about scaremongering: it’s about how we tackle a culture where sexual abuse and harassment is all too often swept under the carpet and normalised. If we are serious about confronting the issues that the #MeToo campaign has brought to light, as education professionals we all need to take responsibility for acting when we have concerns about children, young people and colleagues alike.
I’ve worked in education for nearly fifteen years now, as a teacher, youth worker and educational researcher. During that time, I’ve seen colleagues who have been asked to leave ‘quietly’ amidst rumours of inappropriate behaviour with the promise of a good reference and no further investigation; teachers who have been openly sexually harassed (including myself) by either a colleague or a student without any action being taken; and students denied safeguarding support because the concerns aren’t ‘serious enough’. My colleague Kate has also written about the culture of victim blaming that is prevalent in some schools, especially when it comes to girls and how they look.
At LKMco, we are undertaking more and more participatory research with young people and children, so it’s paramount that our child protection procedures are spot on. Some of the ways we do this are:
- We use a safeguarding consultant to deliver regular training and be on call to talk through cases as they arise
- In our team meetings we’ve used a ‘supervision’ approach where we’ve talked through anonymised cases
- At the start of projects, we now share our safeguarding policy with clients and ask for theirs to make sure everything is robust as it needs to be.
- If we have had to report a safeguarding concern and we’re not satisfied it’s been investigated, we have gone up the chain to express our concerns further to make sure it’s being dealt with.
This process has made me more likely to ask the following questions to make sure we’re doing all we can to keep children and young people safe:
- What is hiding in plain sight?
- What is the worst that can happen if I do nothing?
- Is it time to sweat the small stuff?
1. What is hiding in plain sight?
A personal example for you: when I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my teacher. Did my peers know exactly what was going on? Certainly. Would it have been easy to find out about with the right questions? Definitely. However, no one ever did, although I’m sure some staff must have been aware. I’m sharing this because it illustrates how you can miss something in plain sight by either choosing to turn a blind eye or naively believing the best in people.
What’s more, I’d missed it too. During our safeguarding training, when we talked through the case of the teacher, Jeremy Forrest, and his pupil, who fled to France together, I had a sickening moment when I realised that I’d been that pupil too, although thankfully it was nowhere as serious as the example above. How, in all my years as a youth worker and teacher sitting through numerous safeguarding sessions had I missed what was in plain sight in my own life? It made me realise that often, we can tell ourselves all sorts of falsehoods to avoid the uncomfortable truth.
Good safeguarding training gives you time and space to re-examine the world around you. It leaves you in a better position to speak up when something does rings alarm bells. Furthermore, if you do report something which isn’t resolved, don’t be afraid to take it to the next level up (which should be detailed in the safeguarding policy where you are working) or call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 who will direct you. What this process has taught me is that I owe it to the younger version of myself to be more vigilant in future.
2. What is the worst that can happen if you do nothing?
Last week, just after the safeguarding refresher training, I found myself witnessing something that just wasn’t right. At 9am on a Saturday morning, a group of young men and one woman were causing a public nuisance. She was distressed, crying as she was being pulled around by the men and she’d lost her shoes. They were all under the influence of something. It’s easier in this instance to walk away, right? If I’d seen this kind of behaviour before I’d had the training, I may well have done just that. However, one of the safeguarding principles stuck with me: ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen in that situation if you do nothing?
I called the police. They came and called an ambulance too. I went away and slept easier that night. Whilst whatever was going on may not have been resolved, those young people were on someone’s radar somewhere because of my actions.
3. Sweat the small stuff
This isn’t so much about safeguarding, but more about how being alert to language and practices can prevent sexual harassment being normalised. How many times have you been in the classroom and there’s been ‘banter’ that you’ve had to shrug off before you can teach your lesson?
My colleague told me how she’d once reprimanded a pupil who kept touching another pupils’ hair, even once the recipient asked them not to. She thought before acting as she didn’t want to make a big deal out of something relatively small, but she chose to use the example to explain why when someone doesn’t give consent, you don’t continue. This is a small, yet important way to demonstrate issues of consent just at the age when young people are figuring out their boundaries.
All too often, safeguarding training is a ‘tickbox’ exercise, where more attention is paid to procedure and compliance than the young people we are trying to protect. However, if we are to really address the issues that the #MeToo campaign has brought to light, we owe it to ourselves and our young people to speak up, be brave and address the normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse.