How to talk about the schools abuse scandal

Epidemic: It is rare to find a young women who has not experienced sexual harassment.

Is this a second #MeToo? A tide of testimonies about sexual violence from school and university students has sparked a new conversation about abuse – and what schools should do about it.

“It’s the ‘#MeToo’ movement for schools,” said Chief Constable Simon Bailey a senior police officer in the UK and head of Operation Hydrant, a task force aimed at tackling child sexual abuse.

He was speaking about a wave of testimonies from students that have lifted the lid on years of sexual assault and harassment at British schools and universities. Thousands of students have shared their stories of sexual violence on the website Everyone’s Invited, created as a space for people of all ages and genders to open up about their experiences.

Many agree it is vital to discuss these issues, but it can be difficult for survivors of sexual violence to talk about them, and for others to understand. The topic is plagued with misconceptions that make it hard for people to have a helpful, sensitive conversation. Here are five of the most damaging myths.

Myth 1: Harassment and rape do not affect many people. A survey earlier this year found that more than three-quarters of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. A House of Commons committee found that “sexual harassment is the most common form of violence against women and girls”. Across Europe, 33% of women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. This is a huge global issue: many authorities refer to an “epidemic” of sexual violence.

Myth 2: This is a private school problem. While most of the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited are from private schools, the website’s founder explains that this is because the site grew through word of mouth. Since she attended a private school herself, many of the site’s early contributors were also at private schools. But sexual violence is also far too common at state schools and universities.

Myth 3: This is just about a few bad apples. The problem of sexual violence does not begin and end with the actions of an individual. It continues when institutions fail to support survivors. Too often, procedures for dealing with sexual violence at schools and universities have let students down: for example, survivors have been forced to keep sharing classes and even accommodation with their abusers. Dealing with sexual violence means making institutional change, not just rooting out individual predators.

Myth 4: This is a witch hunt against boys. This is not a simple case of girls versus boys. Many of the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited are from boys, who often find it very difficult to talk about the sexual abuse that they suffer. Endemic sexual violence harms both boys and girls in a variety of ways, and everyone will benefit from ending it.

Myth 5: The solution is to report assaults to the police. Simply telling survivors to report their experiences to the police can be unhelpful. Just 1.5% of all rape cases lead to a suspect being charged, and that means all too often, women go through the trauma of telling the police about an assault, only for the case to be dropped. The problem of sexual violence has to be solved at its source.

Is this a second #MeToo?

Second wave

Yes, say some. Like #MeToo, this is a movement that encourages all survivors to speak out about their experiences, process their trauma and finally secure some kind of justice against their abuser. Like #MeToo, it will inspire a new conversation around the world about how to protect people from sexual violence, and support survivors.

Not at all, say others. This must go further than #MeToo, which they think ended up focusing too much on the actions of individuals, and not enough on the institutions that enabled their predatory behaviour. The focus should not be on individuals, but on putting pressure on schools and universities to change how they deal with sexual violence and stop it from happening in the future.

You Decide

  1. Why is it important to talk about issues like sexual violence in schools?
  2. Think about some ways in which you could support survivors of sexual violence at your own school.

Activities

  1. Design a poster informing people of some of the things they can do to help stop sexual violence.
  2. Write a letter to the leader of your country describing some changes that could be made to tackle sexual violence in schools.

Some People Say...

“We’re encouraging a culture of violence and sexuality that’s detrimental to both men and women.”

Jessica Valenti (1978 – ), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that conviction cases for sexual offences are far too low. Relatively few women report sexual violence to the police, because they know the chances of securing a conviction are so low. Of those that are reported, less than 1% ever lead to a conviction. When there is no meaningful punishment associated with sexual offences, abusers are confident that they can get away with it, and sexual violence becomes still harder to stamp out.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the best way of securing more punishments for sexual violence. Some people argue that the police need reform: that far too often, poor training means that they make survivors feel like sexual violence was their own fault, and that they do not take sexual violence seriously enough. Others think the key is running trials differently. They think that, unlike other crimes, rape cases should not be decided by a jury, because juries are relatively unlikely to convict.

Word Watch

Operation Hydrant
A special police unit set up to investigate historic child sexual abuse after claims were made against high-profile figures including entertainers Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris.
Everyone’s Invited
A website and Instagram account set up by Soma Sara, then a student, in July 2020. It serves as a platform for students to recount experiences of sexual violence anonymously.
House of Commons committee
The House of Commons has a variety of committees, known as select committees, that scrutinise government actions and produce research on important issues.
Epidemic
The widespread occurrence of a disease across a particular community.
Word of mouth
When knowledge passes from person to person on an informal basis, rather than being spread deliberately from the centre.
Bad apples
A phrase commonly used to refer to a handful of individuals whose poor behaviour gives a whole organisation a bad name. It means that there is not an institutional or widespread problem.
Institutional change
Improving the procedures that an institution uses to deal with a problem, and reforming its culture.
Charged
Being charged means that your case has to go to trial; however, it does not mean that you have been found guilty of the crime.

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