Are schools really expelling 15 "sex bullies" a day?

It is entirely reasonable for parents to worry about the influence of a sexualised culture on their kids, but there's a lot more to these statistics than the Mail's "moral calamity" reporting suggests.

 

Today’s Daily Mail front page could make terrifying reading for any nervous parent. “Schools expel 15 sex bullies a day” screams the headline, underneath a teaser adding “Even primary pupils driven to assault by internet porn.”

As the story explains, 3,030 children were excluded temporarily or permanently for sexual misconduct in 2010/11, compared to 3,330 in 2009/10. This shouldn’t really be news, for two reasons. One is that these figures were actually published last July but it seems the Mail didn’t notice, and the other being that Panorama covered this issue three years ago, when we learned there were 3,500 such exclusions in 2006/7.

Sharp-minded readers will note that what these figures should be telling us is a steady but substantial downward trend - the number of exclusions for sexual misconduct has actually dropped by about 15 per cent in the past four years. This is in keeping with the trend for proven sexual offending by juveniles, which has declined from 2,088 in 2007/8 to 1,888 in 2010/11.

Still, over 3,000 instances of sexual assaults and attacks in schools would remain horrific, even if the trend is improving. What the Mail doesn’t mention is that “sexual misconduct” covers a wide range of behaviours, not all of which are bullying, assault, harassment or abuse. The list of criteria is “a mile long” according to one Mr Phil Whitworth, education out-of-school team manager for Lincolnshire. One might hope the Mail journalists might know this, since it came from their own paper last March.

The moral calamity on that occasion was boys, supposedly inspired by TV shows such as Jackass, “inflicting pain on their manhoods." I can quite understand why a 14 year old stapling his todger to the workbench for a dare might be unacceptably disruptive to a chemistry teacher, but sexual assault it ain’t. Nor is passing around mucky pictures for a giggle any kind of assault, nor is a classic cock and balls graffito on a library book. It is not a "sex attack" when a consensually amorous young couple get caught in flagrante behind the bike shed or when one five year old chases another out of the toilets with his willy in his hand shouting “I got a light sabre!” All such incidents and many more could be recorded as sexual misconduct and lead to a child being sent home early from school – sufficient to notch up another statistic for exclusion. Such incidents were also very much part of my school experience in the seventies and eighties and, one might hazard, for as long as there have been schools.

This is not to make light of genuinely sexually abusive and exploitative behaviour, which certainly does occur in schools, as everywhere, and should be treated with utmost seriousness. Victims need protection, and highly inappropriate sexual behaviour is often (though not always) an indicator of sexual abuse happening to the child elsewhere. But what proportion of the 3,000 recorded incidents are worthy of serious concern? It is genuinely impossible to say because there is no detailed breakdown of the statistics available. One would hope that teachers are more sensitive to genuinely abusive and bullying behaviour than they were in my day. In that respect, schools taking such incidents seriously and acting accordingly is actually a good thing. Conversely, there is certainly some anecdotal evidence that children, particularly very young primary kids, are being pegged as mini-sex offenders for behaviours that are natural expressions of infant curiosity.      

Certainly some teachers are worried. Yesterday the NUT conference heard a motion condemning sexist stereotyping and raunch culture in schools, which sparked the current media flurry that includes this morning’s Mail. The motion itself contained familiar references to Playboy Bunny pencil cases, pole-dancing lessons and beauty pageants. Out of curiosity I just tried to buy a Playboy bunny pencil case online. There are three eBay sellers and two online novelty stores selling them in the UK, not a single high street retailer or supermarket appears to stock them. That aside, there can be little doubt that the access young people now have to pornography and sexualised media is without precedent in our history. There are very good reasons to be concerned about how hardcore pornography influences young people’s expectations and understanding of sexual relationships, and it is appropriate that the NUT conference, before turning its attention to raunch culture, had roundly condemned the omission of sex education from the national curriculum at a time when it is perhaps needed more than ever. 

It is entirely possible that the prevalence of sexual bullying and sexual offending in schools is greater than it has ever been. However it must be noted that there is really no hard evidence for it whatsoever. When one hears Play School presenter-turned-Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin telling us there is an epidemic of violent online porn which is leading youngsters on a “seemingly unstoppable march into a moral wasteland” it should perhaps be taken with a bucket of salt. 

Sexual bullying and sexual pressurisation can often be devastating to the developing minds and bodies of children and teenagers. Also damaging to their development can be stigmatisation and sensationalism which portrays young people and their lives as a debauched, decadent cesspit of  moral turpitude. It is reasonable for parents to worry about the influence of a sexualised culture on their kids, but that goes well beyond the availability of hardcore porn. At the time I read the Mail’s story online this morning, the top story on their famous “sidebar of shame” was as follows:

“Rude girl Vanessa Hudgens dances around in a leopard-print mini-skirt in sneak peek of new F-word $$$ex music video.” 

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org