Is There Ever a “Grey Area” When it Comes to Sexual Harassment?

Safeguarding in Secondary Schools: Is There Ever a "Grey Area" When it Comes to Sexual Harassment?

Can we tackle safeguarding in secondary schools, and sexual harassment, if nude pupil pictures are regarded as a non-issue?

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has confirmed she does not regard male pupils sending naked photographs of themselves to female classmates as a contravention of safeguarding in secondary schools.

Labour MP for Gateshead, Ian Mearns, asked Spielman, “When is an allegation of sexual harassment involving a child not a safeguarding issue?”

She said: “I have talked recently, for example, to a sample of girls who had left school within the last two years. Only one of them was able to say that they had never been sent an image by a boy of…a photograph of their naked selves.

“Most of the girls laugh that off and think it’s contemptible. They would not want to be pulled into sort-of safeguarding procedures by reason of being sent a photograph that they think is simply contemptible.”

Mearns then asked: “Is it not a safeguarding issue for the boy who sent the photograph as well – in terms of their behaviour, and what else they’re likely to be getting up to?”

Spielman replied: “There’s a spectrum here and the advisers we had on the reference group were really helpful on this – in sexual misconduct of every kind there is a spectrum from the truly evil and appalling at one extreme, all the way down to things which are essentially clumsy explorations of emerging adolescent sexuality.”

“One of the things that we noticed in doing this work was that it was really difficult for schools to find a good way of thinking about and representing that gradient, and understanding where the right place to draw the line was, in terms of deciding what was a cause for serious concern and what was simply a matter of education, where the messages that reinforce culture and that help boys and girls understand what oversteps the mark, and help them understand the importance of respecting that.”

“So there is one piece that’s about culture and education, and one piece that’s about the point at which you invoke formal proceedings of any kind, whether it’s safeguarding or criminal.”

As expected, Spielman’s comments sent Twitter users into a frenzy. Many were outraged by Spielman’s minimisation of disturbing, unsolicited nude images as “clumsy explorations of emerging adolescent sexuality”, and called for a resignation. 

Ms Spielman quickly clarified her comments, by saying:

“At one point I was questioned about how schools should respond to incidents where naked images are sent to girls, and my comments have been interpreted by some people to mean that I don’t view this as a safeguarding issue. That isn’t what I said and that isn’t what I think.”

“Sexual abuse or harassment is a safeguarding issue. The challenge for schools is how to respond appropriately to individual incidents while still recognising it’s an endemic problem. This will often require a behavioural sanction for the perpetrator alongside the education that we all know is so necessary. That was the point of my discussion with the committee.” 

“In our review, girls told us that one reason they don’t report harassment is that they are concerned about the next steps that would follow; others said that dealing with the problem was ‘like playing whack-a-mole’ because it was so widespread.”

“This is a difficult issue for schools – clearly there needs to be appropriate sanctions against this behaviour and there will be cases that need to be referred to other authorities. The central recommendation of our review was that schools must assume abuse and harassment is happening to their pupils, whether or not they have had specific reports. They need to create and sustain a culture that does not tolerate it.

“I’ve spent the last week speaking about our review and its troubling findings. I’m pleased the review has had the attention that the subject deserves.”

Is this aspect of safeguarding in secondary schools really a concern?

In most workplaces, receiving an unsolicited explicit image from a colleague would not be dismissed as “simply contemptible”. The recipient would not be expected to “laugh that off”. If this is the case at work, why are the rules different for schools with vulnerable children?

Conditioning young girls to laugh sexual harassment off, allows rape culture to prevail and keeps young people suffering in silence. If we want things to change, this behaviour must be challenged and staff and pupils must be educated on consent and self-advocacy.

Do you think sending explicit pupil pictures is a safeguarding in secondary schools issue? Please share your thoughts below.

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