Sexual Harassment and Online Abuse Pervasive in U.K. Schools, Review Finds

The investigation, which relied on accounts from 900 students, found that sexual harassment — from sexist name-calling to requests for explicit photos — was endemic.

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LONDON — Sexual harassment and online sexual abuse has become so endemic for young people in Britain that it has effectively become normalized, students told a government review released on Thursday, a troubling sign of a longstanding problem that women and girls, in particular, face at schools, online and in their everyday lives.

About 90 percent of girls from 32 schools and colleges who were interviewed by education regulators said that sexist name-calling and incidents where they were sent explicit material had happened at least “sometimes,” and students said that education for sexual health and relationships was inadequate.

The review came after a campaign by the online platform Everyone’s Invited earlier this year, in which thousands of young women and girls in Britain shared harrowing testimonies of sexual violence, sexism and misogyny that they experienced as students.

Such behavior was so commonplace, some students told government inspectors, that they did not see a point in reporting it, and the fear of being isolated by their peers outweighed trying to stop the behavior.

Many girls reported that they were asked repeatedly to share explicit photos of themselves, and that boys talked about the images they had received from girls and shared them in online chat groups with their friends, like a “collection game.”

The review of 900 students found that harmful sexual behavior often happened at unsupervised places outside school, such as parks or parties, where drugs and alcohol were often involved.

Relationship and sexual health education in schools was also “too little, too late,” students said, and noted that it did not equip them with the skills needed for the difficult situations in their lives. Some students said they feared reporting unwanted harassment to adults or staff in schools because they feared being ostracized by their peers or blamed for the behavior.

“It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up,” said Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector for Ofsted, the government department responsible for the review.

School officials should assume that sexual harassment is taking place, the review concluded, and it recommended a series of measures including a “carefully sequenced” curriculum on relationships and sexual health that includes a discussion of topics like sexual harassment, sexual violence and consent.

The review was commissioned in March by the Department of Education after women and girls earlier this year shared thousands of accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that they experienced as students to Everyone’s Invited, a platform founded last summer by Soma Sara, a former student at the University College London.

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Ms. Sara said she was encouraged by the government’s acknowledgment that the issue was pervasive at all schools, adding it was a reflection of a wider “rape culture.”

“Young people just feel that they have to cope with this behavior of sexual harassment and abuse because they think it’s just a part of growing up,” she added, and said that many feared reporting it to the authorities would only bring shame, blame and a loss of control.

Anonymous avenues for reporting incidents of sexual harassment are crucial, she said, something the review neglected to mention. To “emphasize the severity and scale of the problem,” Ms. Sara said they had released the names of about 3,000 schools mentioned by people in their accounts.

In response to the review, the government said it would dedicate more resources to strengthening curriculum and training staff at schools and colleges to better recognize sexual harassment and abuse, as well as educate students on issues around consent, pornography and healthy relationships.

Government officials said they would consult with tech companies, law enforcement and children’s advocates on measures to protect children online.

Jessica Ringrose, a professor of sociology at University College London and an expert on gender, sexuality and education, said the fact that it had taken a grass-roots campaign to renew focus on a longstanding issue was “total, utter neglect on the part of the government.”

An earlier government committee had also found in 2017 that sexual harassment was normalized for girls in schools, and the government dragged its feet on implementing sex education that addressed the harassment schoolgirls faced in the digital age, she said.

“How many more reports, reviews, inquiries do we need?” Ms. Ringrose said. Schools need dedicated staff to support students experiencing sexual harassment and abuse, and men and boys who committed such abuses should be prosecuted for their behavior, she added.

And with the additional burden of the pandemic, she wondered if schools would be given the resources to carry out the recommendations.

“How is the government going to implement those recommendations?” she asked.

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