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Sexual abuse in schools: how should parents respond?

Parent Zone founder and CEO Vicki Shotbolt offers advice and support for parents concerned about shocking recent reports of sexual abuse in secondary and higher education. 

As the CEO of a parenting organisation, I know how worried parents must be hearing about the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. 

It’s difficult to be anything other than horrified. 

Figures in the report make disturbing reading. 90% of girls and 50% of boys report being sent “unsolicited explicit sexual material and being pressured to send nude pictures”. 

Perhaps even more worryingly for parents, children and young people told the inspectors that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become "commonplace". 

What, then, should parents do to respond? How can we prepare our children for an environment that is potentially toxic? And, equally importantly, how do we ensure that things change? 

1. Don’t ignore the issue 

The first thing is for all of us to wake up and smell the coffee. 

It’s tempting to think, ‘surely not at the lovely secondary school my child is going to’ or ‘absolutely not with the wonderful friendship group my daughter has’. But that desire to hope that this is a problem for other children but not for your own is one of the things that has led to this situation. 

We don’t want it to happen. We’d prefer to think it didn’t happen. But young people have told us that it does. Not to some of them – to 90% of them. Or rather they didn’t tell us – until it had become so appalling that they took action themselves. 

The reasons they gave for not telling adults included thinking they would be blamed or not believed and losing control of the situation once they had been brave enough to speak out. 

So let’s turn that on its head and start from the premise that it is happening and we have to do something about it. Don’t assume your child is OK - assume they might not be and proactively take steps. 

Listen to the tech Shock podcast by Parent Zone: "Why is there so much sexual harassment in schools?"

2. Have a difficult conversation

Talk to your son or daughter about sexual behaviours. It’s not going to be easy – but not doing it is far worse. 

Tell them that, as with other things in life, there are some people who behave appropriately and some people who don’t. And as they move into secondary school there is a possibility that they will see and hear people behaving badly about sex. 

Explain that this can include people sharing nude images, using sexual terms to bully and upset and, in the worst cases, asking you to do things you’re not comfortable doing. 

If they’re a bit older - perhaps they have been at secondary school for a while - take the conversation a little further. Ask them about their experiences of sexual behaviours in school. Have they received naked photos? Do they hear sexual terms used as abuse? What do they think about the culture around girls and boys?

Open up a dialogue that gives them the space to talk and you the opportunity to listen. Don’t be afraid to be specific but equally don’t make them feel as though you’re accusing them of anything. 

You’re trying to do two things. The first is to give them information that will help them if they encounter a problem. The second is to let them know that you understand the issues and you are interested and concerned about them. 

3. Establish some boundaries

The next, potentially even more difficult, challenge is to be clear about your boundaries.

In our rush to be chilled, laid-back modern parents who are ‘cool’ about sex, we have sometimes forgotten to provide our children with basic ground rules.

Tell them that sharing naked images is a bad idea and that it’s completely unacceptable to share one with anyone who hasn’t asked to receive it. 

Cyberflashing is exactly the same as the grubby flasher in the park - it’s not funny and it’s definitely not the way to attract the opposite sex. 

Of course, your boundaries won’t always stick - but without them young people have nothing to push against and no sense of a safe space. You literally set their compass and you want to make sure that it's pointing in the right direction.

Find help, advice and support information for parents – including the NSPCC's Stop Abuse Together service

4. Make an action plan

Finally, help them to prepare a response. 

This might sound odd but giving your child a strategy they can use should they need to – and helping them to practice it – is super helpful. 

It’s easy to be caught off-guard or so shocked if something bad happens that you don’t know how to react or how to stop it. 

If you’ve practiced a response, you’re much more likely to use it when you need to. 

We need a safe environment for our children

So what of the bigger picture? Is there anything we can do to change the culture and make sure our children are safe when they’re in school? 

Amongst a long list of recommendations for schools, other agencies and government, there was just one that referenced parents. Apparently we need a communication campaign that includes advice for parents. 

I’d say we need an awful lot more than that. We need certainty that when our children are in the care of the state – in schools – they are in a safe environment. 

Perhaps the legal responsibilities placed on employers to ensure workplaces are free from discrimination could provide some ideas. 

Whilst it certainly isn’t the case that all workplaces are models of good practice, most have moved a long way forward since the 1980s. 

Surely we should aspire to at least the same for schools?

Pic credit: Monkey Business /