Rape Crisis Network Ireland Calls for a National Policy on Sexual Harassment in Secondary Schools

This afternoon the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science met to discuss ‘School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health’ with a panel including Dr Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children. 

Dr Muldoon cited the Ombudsman for Children’s submission to the Committee in February 2021 that noted that the UN Committee’s LOIPR for Ireland ‘requested disaggregated data from the State about cases of bullying and harassment in schools.’  In the submission, the Ombudsman encouraged the Joint Committee to include the ‘matter of oversight, monitoring and evaluation in its current examination and to improve the collection, collation and analysis of data about bullying in schools involving children and young people.’  

There is very little data on types of bullying, and in particular on incidences of sexual harassment on school premises and during school hours, but there is a burgeoning body of evidence that child-on-child sexual harassment and assault is a growing problem. In 2014, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) found that for survivors under the age of 18 utilising RCC and CARI services in 2012, 

  • 64% of the disclosed sexual violence incidents were perpetrated by another child between 13 and 17 years old.1 
  • child perpetrators were generally the same age or slightly older than the child they abuse. They are overwhelmingly 15 to 17 years old (82%).2 
  • from the age of 13 the likelihood of a sexual crime being perpetrated by a child increased: 13-and 14-year-olds account for 14% of all child perpetrators; 15- and 16-year-olds account for almost 39% of child perpetrators; and 17-year-olds account for 43% of child perpetrators.3 

Furthermore, CSO figures released just last week state that 20% of detected sexual violence reported in 2019 involved juveniles as both victims and suspected offenders. Rape Crisis Centres nationwide, in contact with survivors and educational institutions, report ongoing instances of harassment and assault in schools. While there are many examples of excellent school responses there are also inconsistent, inappropriate or inadequate responses to same from the authorities.  

Said Cliona Saidlear, Executive Director of the RCNI: 

‘Sexual violence remains prevalent in schools with teenage girls and gender non-conforming children are particularly vulnerable groups. Schools not only encompass physical environments within which children spend significant periods of their time, but they are also powerful norm-setting influences on teenagers. School authorities must respond to incidents and support and report appropriately, but it must now be recognised that this is insufficient given the scale of the problem. The education system has an opportunity and an obligation to address the harmful cultural norms that may be fostered in our schools. RCNI have been calling for a national policy on sexual violence in schools for a decade. In 2021, doing nothing to address the culture and prevent sexual violence is no longer an option.’ 

The RCNI calls for:  

  • every school community to have an explicit zero tolerance of sexual harassment and violence which proactively shapes a safe learning environment.   
  • a national policy put in place to ensure best practice and consistency to support the children involved (beyond Children First reporting obligations), to reduce instances of secondary trauma, to prevent negative impacts on their school performance and interventions to ensure the victimisation does not become a further source of bullying. 
  • priority to be given to providing proven interventions with children exhibiting harmful sexualised behaviour.

Until such a strategy is put in place it will not be possible to evaluate, monitor and work against the harm caused by sexual harassment in schools. A national whole of school policy and set of actions is the most appropriate response to the scale of the problem of teenage vulnerability to sexual violence.  

 

Notes: 

  1. Hearing Child Survivors of Sexual Violence, p.12 
  2. The Older Child and Sexual Violence: Questions sand Challenges for a NationalResponse, p.11 
  3. Hearing Child Survivors of Sexual Violence, p.24
  4. The RCNI will shortly publish some of the findings from ‘ An Exploration of Sexual Harassment among Irish Adolescents: Experience and Understanding’, original research by Dr Michelle Walsh that will give us up to date data on adolescents’ experience and understanding of sexual harassment.