May 3, 2021
In a second article, Rachel Wilson, in-house Counsel considers some of the safeguarding issues for university, college or school students and their parents to consider.
Recent news events in relation to widespread allegations of sexual violence and sexual harassment within the educational context have, amongst other issues, highlighted the importance of safeguarding our students. Sexual allegations within a school, college, or university involve sensitive issues which are often complex and are commonly mishandled by the relevant institution leaving vulnerable students on both sides of a complaint open to the potential of serious consequences and reputational ruin. In our experience, it is vital that such cases are appropriately managed from the outset.
Cases can include a range of complaints. Some concern overt sexual violence and perhaps the issue of consent. Others arise from behaviours that have become incorrectly normalised within society via sexual stereotypes and ‘banter’. There are then those cases involving areas that have developed more recently via technology and social media, such as sexualised online bullying, revenge porn, and unwanted sexual comments via social media or messaging apps.
In all of these scenarios educational institutions have legal responsibilities towards their students; both in respect of those who make a complaint and those who face such allegations. It is at this point that safeguarding must be clearly in focus. This should be evident throughout both the relevant procedures and policies, but also in their strict application which is not necessarily easy to navigate and maybe an unfamiliar process to some of those within the institution seeking to manage the circumstances.
There is often a multitude of difficult issues to grapple with. Reports of sexual violence or harassment may come from the student concerned, but may also be made indirectly by a friend, made anonymously or posted online. Schools, colleges, and universities need to react promptly and handle the report sensitively. Often there is the opportunity for a complaint to spread quickly amongst peers or online, and for information to develop into something that may no longer represent the original report. It may also be that a complaint concerns students at two or more separate establishments highlighting the need for communication and cooperation between parties. The wishes of the complainant should be taken into account and, dependent upon the ages of the students concerned, parents may need to be involved (and involved promptly). Support must also be provided to both sides and risk assessments need to be undertaken in respect of the students concerned and the wider student body.
Such cases also necessarily raise the question of whether a crime has been alleged. Thus, regard must also be had to the involvement of outside agencies such as the police and social services, and questions surrounding cooperation, confidentiality, and anonymity might be raised. This will also include the preservation of evidence, meaning that careful thought must be given to the issue of information sharing, disclosures, and updates concerning a report, but also the importance of proper record keeping. It is further important to note that the involvement of outside agencies does not necessarily prohibit disciplinary procedures being undertaken simultaneously, but it does require careful analysis to ensure that other investigations are not compromised and that they are still able to protect the legal rights of the students’ concerned.
What is clear is that these scenarios are not straightforward. If not handled properly they can have lasting effects on a student in respect of their welfare and wellbeing, reputation, and ongoing education. The right guidance, advice, and support are crucial in ensuring that throughout these processes students are appropriately protected and safeguarded.