Stuart Allardyce, National Manager of the child protection charity Stop It Now! Scotland, describes his experience of working with children who display harmful sexual behaviour and discusses why appropriate responses, that assess the risks and respect children’s rights, must be found.
The last year has seen increasing public attention around sexual harassment, violence and abuse perpetrated by children in school. The Young Women Lead Committee recently completed a report on this difficult subject that was debated in the Scottish Parliament. It confirmed what many of us have known for some time: the issue is widespread and serious in schools across Scotland, we don’t have the right kinds of measures in place to prevent sexual abuse happening in the first place, and we often don’t respond to it effectively after it comes to light.
Most UK and international surveys looking at maltreatment in childhood find that around one-third of sexual abuse is perpetrated by children and young people themselves. In my 15 years of working with children and young people who display harmful and problematic sexual behaviour, I’ve seen many young people who have abused others in schools, as well as in family contexts and other situations. Sometimes the victims are peers, sometimes much younger children, and sometimes even adults. Some children who abuse have intellectual impairments, while others would be described as high performing members of the school community. There is no one type of adolescent who abuses; it’s a strikingly varied group.
I’ve learnt a few key things in those 15 years. Firstly, these are children, not mini-adult sex offenders. The vast majority don’t persist with such behaviours into adulthood, but grow out of it with the right support. Few children abuse because of issues around sexual deviance. Some have had negative childhood experiences themselves, or are influenced by peers or online experiences. Many are opportunistic, immature, or curious, lacking in inhibition and empathy, and misunderstanding what is acceptable, age-appropriate behaviour.
In my experience, the vast majority are temporarily or permanently excluded from school because of their behaviour. Sometimes that’s the right decision. But sometimes it’s disproportionate, and not linked to an assessment of risk. I once worked with a young person who abused small children in the community and was immediately excluded from high school when he was charged. There was no evidence he presented a risk to peers, but with both parents working, he was left unsupervised in the community where he did pose a risk.
Clearly, when the abuse is of a pupil in the school, difficult decisions must be made and the safety and views of the victim are paramount. But often for adolescents charged with sexual offences, the abuse will be of a younger child not at their school – a family member or child in the community. Most young people I have worked with in this situation are struggling with peers and often have difficulties with social interactions. Removing them from the routine of school and labeling them as a sex offender can go against the support we need to offer.
We must recognise that these perpetrators are also children first and foremost, who have a right to protection, nurture, learning, and peer interaction. Clearly, they need the right support and restrictions to ensure that these rights are realised in a safe way; keeping a child in school where possible and appropriate can be of huge benefit.
Sexually abusive behaviour perpetrated by children is an emotive and difficult subject. We urgently need more training for teachers and school staff so that they understand how education and school life can contribute to prevention. But most of all, if we are to get things right for everyone after abuse has happened, we need decisions about inclusion to be made by schools in partnership with social workers, health colleagues, police and other relevant organisations.
Stuart Allardyce is National Manager of the child protection charity Stop It Now! Scotland. He is the co-author of ‘Working with Children and Young People who have Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour’ (Dunedin Press) and is a member of the Scottish Government’s Expert Working Group on Preventing Sexual Offending Amongst Children and Young People.
Young Women Lead Committee 2018 report on Sexual Harassment in Schools can be accessed here: http://www.ywcascotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/YWL-Report-FINAL.pdf