Lawyers acting for families whose children have been victims of rape, sexual assault and harassment by fellow school pupils have stepped up action against the education secretary, Justine Greening, with a letter threatening judicial review proceedings.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is funding a legal challenge against the education secretary, which accuses her of failing to act to protect children from sexual abuse and harassment by their classmates, the Guardian has learned.
A report published a year ago by MPs on the women and equalities committee revealed shocking levels of sexual abuse and harassment of schoolgirls who complained it was a part of daily life, often dismissed as “banter” by some staff.
Ministers have since accepted the need for fresh guidance to schools on how to handle allegations of rape, abuse and harassment between pupils, but families of victims are horrified at the delay in releasing the new guidance, which might not come into force until September 2018.
One mother, whose daughter was the victim of a serious sexual assault, said: “The secretary of state’s failure to take action to protect children who have been abused frightens me. How can she sleep at night? This is a massive, massive epidemic of child abuse and she’s doing nothing about it.”
The EHRC chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said: “We hear the shock and dismay at the stories of sexual abuse perpetrated across sectors and industries, from Harvey Weinstein to the Westminster parliament. If we really mean it, we need to use the same lens to look at the youngest victims of all.”
The families are demanding to know the precise release date for the new guidance to schools. They want the government to update its Keeping Children Safe in Education guidelines to include more robust advice requiring schools to protect the victims and their right to education, and to consider suspending the alleged perpetrator.
A preliminary letter was sent to Greening almost two months ago. The EHRC says she failed to produce an adequate response to that first letter. As a result, what is known as a “letter before action” was sent on Friday accusing her of being in breach of the Equality Act 2010 and threatening a judicial review in the event of no progress.
“Equality starts from childhood and an effective education is a critical part of that foundation,” said Hilsenrath. “We will struggle in vain for equality in adult life for as long as we fail young girls in schools.
“Abuse affects girls’ ability to learn, as well as their physical and mental health. We know that many suffer a recurrence of trauma by being put back in classes with pupils at whose hands they have suffered.”
The letter comes at the end of an extraordinary week in Westminster, with a string of sexual abuse and harassment allegations, and promises of swift action to address the problems in parliament.
Parents and campaigners have flagged up what they see as a discrepancy between the government’s intention to take speedy action to protect women in parliament and what they see as the ongoing failure to protect girls at risk from abuse by peers in schools.
Louise Whitfield, solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, said: “Repeated promises of new guidance over the last year have not been fulfilled, and every day dozens of schoolgirls are sexually harassed and assaulted without their schools knowing how to handle it.
“This failure to protect them not only breaches their human rights but discriminates against them. The secretary of state must act or defend her position in court.”
One mother whose daughter reported to police that she had been raped by a fellow pupil said schools were still woefully ill-equipped to deal with allegations of sexual violence and abuse between classmates.
In her daughter’s case, the boy was arrested and released on police bail. She claims however the school failed to act to protect her daughter adequately. “They thought it was OK to expect her to go back into a classroom with a guy who raped her.
“They said he was innocent until proven guilty and had a right to an education, but what about my daughter’s rights?
“Schools need to treat child-on-child sexual violence as seriously as they would adult-on-adult sexual violence and adult-on-child sexual violence. When schools fail to deal effectively with sexual violence between students they compound the problem.
“They leave the victim in a worse psychological state, they give the perpetrator and other potential offenders a clear message that you get away with it and they leave other potential victims with the message that you are better off not reporting
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, last month gave an undertaking at a hearing of the women and equalities committee that the government would introduce rules to stop boys who sexually abused other children at school from being allowed back in the same classroom.
The Department for Education said: “Schools should be safe places for all children to learn and sexual harassment and sexual violence should never be tolerated. Statutory safeguarding guidance is clear that schools should have an effective child protection policy that addresses peer on peer abuse. That guidance is regularly updated and remains in force.
“To ensure we are doing all we can to assist schools, we will be publishing interim advice this term specifically on peer on peer abuse. We will also launch a consultation this term on changes to the Keeping Children Safe in Education Guidance before the changes come into force in September 2018.” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/04/families-of-child-sexual-abuse-victims-threaten-action-against-uk-government http://archive.is/PHEbO