Angie’s daughter Clare suffers flashbacks and struggled to eat after being sexually abused by a pupil at school (Image: Getty Images)
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When Angie* got a phone call from her daughter's school saying there had been an incident, she assumed it was nothing more than typical playground games.
Picking Clare* up at the gates, however, she was stunned to find her 10-year-old girl so shaken up that she was "unrecognisable".
"She came home unable to use the toilet, shower, eat – she was living underneath her bed," says Angie.
With her usually "happy, healthy, normal" daughter unable to speak about the incident, the devoted mum asked her to draw what had happened.
What Clare sketched out left Angie horrified. The young girl had been groped from behind in the chest and genitals in the playground by a male pupil of the same age, who later boasted to pals about his actions.
Reporting the incident to the school in 2017, though, Angie claims she was met with a wall of resistance – and found "every system was failing" as she escalated their complaints up the chain.
Sexual harassment in schools 'normalised'
The family's story follows a bombshell Ofsted report that lays bare the harrowing rise of sexual harassment in schools, which inspectors say has become "normalised".
The review found children as young as 10 had shared nude pictures on apps including WhatsApp and Snapchat, while girls had experienced being groped in school corridors.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, said access to technology, social media and online pornography were “exacerbating factors” – and that the problem was spreading to primary schools.
Most disturbingly, the report suggested young people often did not report sexual harassment as it happened so often, with one Year 12 pupil saying the spread of explicit pictures was so pervasive it was like “whack a mole”.
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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there was a “gulf” between young people’s experiences of abuse and harassment, and the adult understanding of its severity.
He added: “Nobody can fail to be shocked by the finding that children and young people don’t see any point in reporting sexual harassment because it is seen as a normal experience.”
Complaints 'swept under the rug'
For Angie, who lives in Scotland, the findings come as no surprise. Weeks before Clare's incident, her class attended a lesson in which they were taught to report sexual abuse.
Yet when the mum and her daughter contacted the school about the incident, she says no action was taken against the boy and claims staff were eager to sweep the complaints "under the rug".
"She had reported it right away because that's what she was educated to do. But you're educating young girls in a system that's not supportive once you report," says Angie.
"So everything they taught her totally contradicted what she then experienced. Education, education psychology, social services, police – I couldn't believe every system was failing her."
Angie – who says she has never blamed the boy due to his age – took her complaints to the police, but they could not prove sexual intent.
She then contacted the schools ombudsman, who conducted a six-month investigation.
She says the probe found the school had failed to follow child protection policy and procedure, take her daughter's experience into account and make decisions on behalf of her welfare.
But four years on, Angie says no measures have been taken to address the incident and that Clare continues to suffer the consequences.
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"Still to this day my daughter is at the academy with this boy," she says. "He's 14 now and she's still experiencing eating lunch at school and boys coming up to her saying we're going to drag you into the bathroom and [abuse] you.
"She still continues to report it because deep down she feels responsible now, she thinks things will change. But I don't."
'There will be a tipping point'
The Ofsted report – compiled from reports of more than 900 young people in 32 state and private schools – comes off the back of a growing scandal over abuse in schools.
Earlier this year, thousands of pupils shared anonymous stories of sexual harassment on the website Everyone's Invited.
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Clare was one of the many teenage girls to post on the site. Angie believes it is an important tool in allowing pupils to feel "empowered and be heard", but says students have been forced to set up the grassroots movement because "no societal structures are taking ownership".
The mum consulted with a top Scottish lawyer, who told her there was no chance of taking her case to court as sexual motivation cannot be proven against a child.
But amid the growing reports of harassment, Angie is calling for children's rights to be further enshrined in law.
"I envision in future generations they'll look back at our generation and be like, 'I can't believe you allowed that to happen'.
"At some point there will be a tipping point, probably girls being raped in the playground, because something big will have to happen for it to change and it has to be pretty drastic if those numbers aren't being taken seriously already."
She adds: "We're talking about all the taboos. It would be much easier and nicer to believe it's not happening.
"It's almost to difficult to know how to tackle it because there's no villain in the piece. You don't want to believe a child would be capable of that, so there's nowhere to point the blame and we put it in the 'too hard' basket."
Abuse trauma triggered flashbacks
For brave Clare, speaking out about her experience has made her a "signpost" for other girls in her school who have experienced abuse but not reported it.
"Parents aren't equipped to deal with this because it's not something we experienced in our generation," says Angie. "So what my daughter finds is that she goes to sleepovers and other girls say, 'Well that boy did the same thing to me, but I told my parents and they don't do anything about it.'"
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Clare has suffered flashbacks since the abuse, and struggles to sit in a room unless her back is against the wall.
However, she has refused to move schools and has taken it upon herself to educate male pupils when they behave inappropriately towards her.
"This boy didn't have any accountability, he didn't have any consequences, so all you've done is educated whole classes of 10-year-old boys to think you can treat a girl like this and get away with this," says Angie.
"What she's learned is that it's her responsibility to have the restorative conversations with them, explain the impact it's had on her – and suck it up the next week when the same thing happens again."
Andrew Fellowes, associate head of policy at the NSPCC, says: "Angie and Clare’s experiences are heartbreaking. No child should have go to school fearful of being sexually abused by their schoolmates. But the sad reality is harmful sexual behaviour can occur in both primary and secondary schools.
"All schools must be confident in recognising and responding to harmful sexual behaviour, with a focus on cultural change and intervening early to protect children and young people, not just responding to incidents after they occur, or even waiting for things to escalate until they are deemed serious.
"This must be backed up with specialist, joined-up support services that help, like our Letting the Future In services which helps victims recover, along with other services that encourage young people to speak out about any concerns like our Speak Out Stay Safe assemblies.
"The Relationships, Sex, and Health Education curriculum is an opportunity to provide positive, age appropriate messages in primary schools and build on them in secondary schools. But to succeed, the Government must be more ambitious to match the scale of the problem and support schools to confidently deliver it."
'We need a complete systems overhaul'
Responding to the Ofsted report, the UK Government said schools would be encouraged to take extra training days on the issues and tougher safeguarding rules would be produced.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable.
“No young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.”
Angie insists there needs to be a total rethink about how child-on-child abuse is addressed.
"My daughter's story is a very good example in that you had a classic case," she says. "There is no grey area here – it was black and white, it was public, he admitted to what he did, she reported it.
"So while everything was going wrong, everything was going right and yet nothing changed. Clearly there has to be a complete system overhaul."
A spokesman for Education Scotland said it is working with the Scottish Government, local authorities and schools to ensure pupils receive "high-quality relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in schools".
It added: "The Mentors in Violence Prevention programme is a peer education programme led by Education Scotland – funded by the Scottish Government Safer Communities Directorate – providing young people with the language and a framework to explore and challenge attitudes, beliefs and cultural norms that underpin gender based violence, bullying and other forms of abuse.
"Fifty five per cent of Scottish secondary schools have received staff training in the delivery of MVP, with an increasing number of schools being trained to support delivery in session 2021 – 2022.
"Education Scotland will be delivering professional learning to help schools tackle technology-assisted problematic sexual behaviours. Education Scotland took over delivery of this professional learning from Stop it Now! in late Spring 2021 and publication of resources will follow in due course.”
*Names have been changed
Have you or a loved one been affected by sexual harassment in schools? Contact [email protected]
Angie was supported by the NSPCC. The charity's Report Abuse in Education helpline can be reached on 0800 136 663 or by emailing [email protected]