Private Schools Need to Change Their Approach to Sexual Assault
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Money, reputation and silence hide a disturbing link between private schools, creative disciplines and widespread sexual abuse.
TW: sexual assault
Like a wildfire that spreads, rape culture, misogyny and power abuse have slithered and invaded into schools at an alarming rate. In a twisted turn of events, the spaces that were built for the safe development of future generations have become a paradise for abusers.
A study by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and countless stories shared on everyoneisinvited.uk, a non-profit platform for victims to share their stories, showed a higher frequency of abuse in private schools, in particular in music and specialist schools. In light of the recent Schofield affair, concerns over children’s safety are rising and although the Home Office stated that battling violence and sexual abuse, in particular for women, is a ‘government priority’, much is left to be desired. The question persists, why is there a correlation between abuse and creative disciplines in private schools?
When facing these situations and concerns regarding children’s safety in private schools, we have to challenge the misconceptions that money guarantees safety and success. Private or independent schools justify their pricey tuition on the basis of reputation, alumni and rankings to feed parents and guardians the impression that they can offer quality education that will ensure their children will thrive. In fact, testimonies and statistics prove the exact opposite. According to recent independent and governmental studies, private schools in the UK show higher percentages of abuse but lower percentages of reporting. As Soma Sara, founder of Everyone is Invited said, ‘this is a universal problem’, rape culture, sexual assault and harrasment and even grooming are sadly a concern in every part of the world. Although, this globalisation of the problem does not justify the measure and the mechanisms at play in private schools. Essentially the pattern that is discernible in how most private schools in the UK and in the rest of the world adopt, is one where money does guarantee safety, for the perpetrators that is. Abusers can then rely on the double-sided belief that money will keep them safe.
Moreover, there are specific indications that show higher instances of abuse and assaults in art colleges or disciplines, thus opening a Pandora's box of concerns and bewilderment. The subject of art in schools is especially complicated as the topics taught require a special sensitivity and maybe even talent to encourage pupils’ creativity. It becomes apparent how forming a connection through art is often inevitable, though how do we ensure the bonds formed through teaching don’t surpass safe boundaries?
As described by two ex-pupils of a private girls-only boarding school and a highly prestigious artistic boarding school respectively, the status of their schools meant that claims of assault and abuse were ‘handled in a much more discreet way so as to avoid negative press’. As agreed by both ex-pupils, because of their private status, ‘it's easier to keep some incidents contained before they are leaked to the public’. The word ‘leaked’ here represents precisely the problem at hand. So far, the default measures taken place by these schools rely solely on privatising the issue as much as possible, resulting in pupils and parents alike not even being aware of the potential predators and abusers confined within school walls. One of the ex-pupils recently found out her former music teacher had been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to underage girls in her school and she admits, ‘perhaps before the teacher was reported there was an element of them (the school directors) ‘choosing’ not to know’.
In light of the recent Schofield scandal, an answer must be found to explain the correlation and prevalence of sexual assault, abuse and grooming in creative classrooms or colleges. It was even specifically mentioned in the study by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that in the case of music schools, ‘the power and influence of often revered and influential music teachers made some pupils even more vulnerable to being sexually abused by them.’ A similar reasoning could be applied to other artistic disciplines and the problem becomes clearer. The ex-pupil of a prestigious art school mentioned before recalls one of the drama teachers had a habit of dating ex-students, bringing into question the closeness this teacher might have had to the students whilst they were in school. The ex-pupil believes that subjects like drama, being a both mental and physical discipline, would ‘allow teachers to touch students and put them in more trusting and compromising positions, especially at a private school’.
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Upon talking to these ex-pupils, memories of day-to-day episodes that at the time didn't strike them as problematic, began to resurface. One of the ex-pupils says ‘I did witness a few things that could be considered creepy and weird, like a teacher purposely dropping pencils and making one of the girls in the class pick it up, but [...] it went unnoticed.’ It becomes apparent from accounts like these and from the timelines in which these episodes come back to strike the now grown-up students as abusive and inappropriate, that the definitions of ‘assault’, ‘abuse’ and ‘harassment’ need to be expanded. Moreover, schools and private ones in particular should understand that breaking this pattern of silence to safeguard their reputation will ultimately further damage their image when the truth gets ‘leaked’. Perhaps if schools were open about how ‘well’ they are equipped to tackle these sensitive topics, the assumption that money equals the safety of their children, could start to ring a bit more true. After all, these are places where the adults are meant to be the example to follow and the educators, it should not be left to the survivors to do that work of education and prevention completely.
The importance placed on teachers’ reputation is a double edged sword, as on one side, the reputation of a teacher will elevate the reputation of the whole school which will therefore be protected, and on the other side, reputation inflates the confidence of these teachers and of those who protect them. The argument then comes full circle; “The reputations of both the musicians and the schools were often seen as more important than their victims and potential victims when allegations were made or concerns were raised’ as stated by the Inquiry. The questions remain however. How can genuine connections be made in art or music classrooms when inflated reputations and credentials serve as a passepartout for sexual abuse? How can schools offer a safe and comfortable environment for creativity to flow, when we trap children in schools that ignore or hide rampant rape and abuse culture? Most often than not, we see children left to fend for themselves, silenced by the same authorities that promised them a thriving environment.
The courageous survivors and witnesses that come forward put schools to shame and show the pupils in their place now, what the example to follow should be. Despite the horrors and the trauma in the thousands of stories on Everyone is Invited, there is a glimmer of hope. Thanks to outside organisations, social media campaigns and even creative media like films and series that tackle this subject, we can start to see important progress towards ending the vicious circle of silence around sexual abuse. Let this be a reminder that education is not limited to the walls of a school, day to day life experiences and conversations can be great assets to educate one another, the matter lies in putting forth the right resources to fill in the gaps of knowledge especially around topics of abuse, so there will be no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.
Some useful resources to educate and support young people:
Everyone is Invited's website allows anyone to share their story and become part of this organization's purpose to eradicate abuse
Everyone's Invited post about teaching children consent.
Why I Kept Quiet: online community to support survivors and educate on how to recognize and cope with trauma
namastehannah: feminist activist and artist from Berlin who creates art to promote education and activism
Gay's Against Groomers: queer community against the sexualization of children
Sex Education, Season 2, Episode 7 - Netflix
This episode deals with helping a teenage girl recognize and report her assault, the storyline overreaches multiple episodes, showing how she manages to cope and seek help.
I May Destroy You - HBO (age rating 16+)
Based on her personal life, Michaela Coel's character navigates life and creativity after a deeply traumatising assault that changes her life. This series deals with PTSD, activism and creating art through trauma.