Liability for Sexual Abuse in School

A recent high-profile case involving a primary-age girl who had suffered sexual abuse by other pupils whilst at school that settled out of court reminds us of a school’s duties towards its pupils. The facts of this case are a timely reminder to governing bodies, proprietors, principals and head teachers, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads.

As the DfE’s recent Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (May 2018) Guidance reminds us, schools and colleges have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children in their school/ college. In addition to this is the school’s common law duty of care towards those in its care. As discussed in an earlier article schools have an enhanced duty of care towards pupils but whilst risk assessments are necessary they are not required to reduce risk to the lowest possible level. Rather, teachers must use their own judgment and knowledge of the specific factors at hand.

In a case brought on behalf of “Bella” who had suffered repeated sexual assaults by two of her male classmates in the playground of her primary school it was alleged that the school had been negligent in a number of ways, including:

  • failing to prevent the sexual assaults from occurring;
  • failing to appropriately safeguard Bella;
  • failing to adequately train staff members to identify safeguarding concerns;
  • a member of staff acted negligently by failing to intervene in an assault that took place in the school playground and that they failed to report the matter to the appropriate authorities in a timely manner.

According to Bella’s lawyers it was later discovered that two members of staff had previously witnessed the boys displaying inappropriate sexual behaviour towards Bella in the playground. The staff member neither escalated this incident internally, nor reported it to Bella’s parents. Bella’s parents also learned that the school had been informed by other parents that the boys had displayed harmful sexual behaviour to other children in the school in the past.

Although the maintaining local authority did not admit liability in this case, Bella’s claim was settled out of court following her lawyers’ emphasis on the impact the assaults had had on Bella, including claims for the psychiatric injuries she had suffered; therapy costs; care costs; and travel expenses.

With reported sexual assaults on school premises on the increase, the national police chief lead for child protection stated last year that “We are dealing unequivocally with the tip of the iceberg” There are also similar concerns about face-to-face and cyber-bullying, which are also being reported in increasing numbers. Whilst it is hoped that the above case is instructive, further practical steps that schools can take to meet their duties are also outlined in our earlier article.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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