Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in Schools

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse has published its final report.  Chapter 13 specifically considers Childhood sexual abuse in schools and makes a number of recommendations to prevent abuse from happening, and where it does to ensure an effective response.

The evidence

In 2016, 70.5% of Australian schools were Government run, 18.5% were Catholic schools and 11% were independent schools. The report describes complex arrangements for the regulation, funding and administration of all schools which is shared between Government and State and Territory Governments.  It became clear that standards and procedures varied greatly over the country.

Almost one in three of the survivors who spoke in the private sessions had been sexually abused in a school setting, with a disproportionate number of those having been abused in a boarding school or by people in religious ministry in schools.  The abuse described included sexual and physical abuse, psychological abuse, bullying and intimidation.  Whilst the vast majority of the abuse was perpetrated by an adult male, survivors also described abuse by other children particularly in boarding school settings where ‘hazing’ was carried out.   The survivors talked about experiencing a decline in their academic performance following the abuse, which they carried with them through other educational institutions in later life.

Institutional responses

Many problems in the ways schools respond to sexual abuse are common to other types of institutions; however some are specific to a school environment.

The report identifies that failures to act on disclosures can obviously put a significant number of other children at risk. The common threads include poor leadership and a lack of accountability where the culture prioritises protecting the school more than the children.   Many survivors felt that they could not report the abuse because of the significant level of authority held by adults in school.   Another common thread was the limited engagement with families and communities, including not telling parents when their child had made a complaint.   There was evidence of poor HR practices, including failing to share information and failing to implement and follow policies and procedures, or having none in place at all.

Finally the report identifies the specific risks faced in an online environment from grooming to the ability to share images.

Recommendations

The Commission identifies that many recommendations set out in the other volumes are of general application to schools, however makes the following specific recommendations to create child safe schools and create a child-focused complaints system:

  1. Child Sexual Abuse education for children and parents to start in day-care/preschool and then continue onwards at an age appropriate level in order to increase knowledge and build skills to help reduce the risk of abuse;
  2. Implementation of the 10 Child Safety Standards (set out in volume 6 – Making Institutions Child Safe) but to specifically ensure that all schools have the same standards and procedures in place in order to avoid the current inconsistency;
  3. There needs to be a nationally consistent approach to online safety including education for children and parents;
  4. A shift in the burden of proof in a civil liability claim, it is recommended that if a survivor can prove they were abused it is then for the institution to prove that they did everything they could to prevent it;
  5. There should be a child-focused reporting process which thereafter provides educational support for all children involved;
  6. The report recommends a scheme similar to a Reportable Conduct Scheme where Heads are obliged to notify an oversight body of any reportable allegation, conduct or conviction and to allow the oversight body to monitor the investigation and response;
  7. It is recommended that records of allegations should be retained for 45 years to allow for delayed disclosure and to take account of limitation periods. There should also be a nationally consistent information sharing scheme;
  8. There needs to be greater staff education and training in relation to identifying abuse and responding effectively to disclosure. This should include all students before they enter any child-related jobs;
  9. Finally the report recommends strengthening teacher registration requirements in order to improve national consistency of standards.

It is clear from the report that there is a great deal of work to be done in implementing the recommendations, and that one of the fundamental difficulties faced is the existing inconsistency in regulations and procedures throughout Australia. Many of these recommendations however are not specific to the Australian jurisdiction and schools in the UK should be considering these recommendations and the detailed report supporting them and reviewing how they can be applied to their school setting.


Written by Sarah Wright, associate at BLM.

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