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17 March 2022

Blame racism, not “one bad egg” for the strip-search of a black schoolgirl

It's not just police officers — teachers were complicit too.

By Shomi Williams

This week a safeguarding review detailed how a 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched — while she was menstruating — by police due to her teachers’ unfounded suspicions of cannabis possession during a school exam. The case, revealed in a City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership report, is ultimately one of sexual assault, which was ushered in by her teachers and performed by female police officers, people who were supposed to protect her. According to a statement released by her solicitor the girl, known as Child Q, who was once top of her class, has now been left wanting “to scream, shout, cry or just give up” every day.

The case has caused public outrage. People want to know: “Why did this happen?” “Why were the police called?” “Why her?” No child should have to go through such a traumatising ordeal at school. It makes people wonder where children are safe, if not at school.

Upon further digging, however, the reality is that the question unfortunately is not about where children are safe, but which children are safe. The safeguarding report itself pointed out that in Hackney, from 2020-21, 25 children (under 18) were strip-searched. Twenty-two of the searches found no illegal or suspected possessions. Fifteen of the children searched were black, two were white, six Asian and two Arab or north African.

The figures speak for themselves: racism is at play here. Can you imagine a white girl being strip-searched in such a manner? Indeed, multiple studies suggest that black children are more likely to be perceived as older, angrier and more aggressive. This treatment is called adultification and is believed to stem from racist perceptions of black people as inherently more threatening. It has been observed to be in place from age ten in boys and in black girls, who are also sexualised earlier, from age five. Whether deliberate or not, racist beliefs function in a way that overlooks, allows and evens celebrate abuse with little empathy or question — adultification is used to justify brutal mistreatment.

Adultification is not the only thing at play here, however. Apart from the fact that even an adult woman would not have been treated the way Child Q was, the law clearly states that for that kind of strip-search to be performed on a child (under 17), an appropriate adult or guardian must be present. Yet this was not granted for Child Q. The police bypassed the law and their own training to perform a degrading and needless search on this child. There was a desire to deny this child of any decency and legal protections that would make this process even slightly less traumatising.

This was not just a case of “one bad egg”. There were multiple different groups and problems at play here: teachers harassing Child Q (who had not previously been known to use cannabis), police being called on her because she smelled like cannabis, the police performing a strip-search without following the necessary protocols, and Child Q being expected to complete her exam immediately following this traumatic procedure. Too many authority figures co-signed Child Q’s unjust criminalisation and dehumanisation. Twenty-nine years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the culture of institutional racism within the justice system, and even within schools, is disappointingly still present.

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