Column: Policy needed on sexually harmful behaviour in schools

RCNI call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, to make 2015 the year that schools became environments free from sexual violence.

The journey from the moment of a sexual assault to the moment of confiding in someone who can support you is always a journey taken alone by every victim. But it does not have to be an unsupported journey. Consider the 14 year old girl who has just had her breast grabbed in her school corridor, what have we told her that will help her make the choice to cross the corridor to a member of staff and name and report what has just happened to her so that the school can step in with a set of supportive and appropriate actions under our Child Protection regime? In all too many cases, we had already failed her even before she was assaulted because we told her all too little that would help her in this moment.

As secondary schools reopen for the 2015/2016 year RCNI invite the Minister for Education and Skills and her cabinet colleagues to take up the very real opportunity of freeing schools from all forms of sexual violence and from any threat of sexual violence.
Sexual violence remains prevalent in our society with teenage girls a particularly vulnerable group. RCNI in fact revealed last year that of all the teenagers using Rape Crisis services nationwide 37% of them were abused by their peers. Due to a lack of research resources directed at understanding sexual violence in Ireland, we do not know to what extent sexual harassment and sexual violence occurs within school settings.

However, when sexual violence in schools was looked at in the Netherlands back in 2002, (Timmerman) of 2,808 students surveyed (aged 15—16 years) 18 per cent reported unwanted sexual experiences at school in the past 12 months, 72 per cent of whom were girls. A Swedish study in 2005 (Witkowska and Menckel) surveying 1,080 young people aged 17 to 18 years found that 49 per cent of respondents identified sexual harassment as a problem in school. An Australian study in 2008 (Schute et al) found that verbal and indirect victimisation of girls by boys was an everyday occurrence and almost entirely sexual.

While sexually harmful behaviour is not confined to mixed gender schools international research would indicate that onsite offending is higher than in single sex schools. According to the Dept. of Education 65% of 367,178 second level students attend co-ed schools and colleges across Ireland – approximately 237,000 children between 11 and 18. Yet we do not have a national policy and action plan for schools on how to prevent sexual harassment and violence.

No child should have to attend a learning environment, under the care of the State, where they risk experiencing verbal, cyber and indeed physical sexual assaults during a school day. No parent should be required to send their children to attend an institution which is notproactively ensuring the safety of their children from such harm.

The Dept. of Education is missing important opportunities to support and reinforce child protection strategies given the absence of the development and roll-out of a national schools policy on sexual violence prevention. Such a prevention strategy could ideally start by addressing the gap in evidence on the nature and extent of any sexual harassment and sexual violence that students experience while in learning environments, thus equipping informed prevention.

Proactively promoting a ‘whole of school’ culture of zero-tolerance to sexual harassment and sexually harmful behaviours can greatly enhance existing child protection responses under Children First. In a school that has an explicit anti-sexual harassment policy every child should be confident that the school community already has their back, even before they are victimised thus making reporting more likely and reducing the chance of there being negative consequences for the children reporting.

It is important that we teach our intolerance of sexual violence; that this needs to be done explicitly is unfortunately evidenced by the continued rates of prevalence.

A school with a culture of zero-tolerance to harmful sexual behaviours is a school in which students are equipped to identify such behaviour easily – whether virtual or otherwise – and each student knows through the schools visual environment and explicitly voiced attitude that such behaviour is never tolerated, minimised or dismissed.

Supporting such a culture also includes meeting our obligations to children through giving them information and facts about relationships and sex. This means biological, factual and unbiased information and crucially it also means information regarding relationships and empowerment around good communications and negotiating consent safely. The curriculum, both in terms of content and in terms of its optional delivery to children, falls short on both counts.

A ‘Whole of School’ zero tolerance to sexually harmful behaviour will also consider the school’s role in ensuring the minimal disruption to education for any victim and any child perpetrator.

RCNI invite and encourage Minister Jan O’Sullivan to take a lead in partnership with other areas of government, including justice, children and youth affairs, to initiate the development of a holistic ‘Whole of school’ zero tolerance of sexually harmful behaviour.

This column was published on the on Sepember 9th, 2014. You can read the original here.