'Learning from Child Q: Five Steps for Safer Student Searches' - Judicium in SecEd

'Learning from Child Q: Five Steps for Safer Student Searches' - Judicium in SecEd

Posted  15th May 2023

A year on from the Child Q strip search scandal, new figures show continuing poor practice in schools. Safeguarding expert James Simoniti considers how schools must be ensuring that incidents like this are never repeated

The strip search of Child Q in 2020 and the subsequent furore which erupted last spring prompted a wave of concern about the searching of children in schools and the role of the police.

Child Q was a 15-year-old girl who attended a school in London.

A Hackney and City Safeguarding Children Partnership Review into the case of “Child Q” (CHSCP, 2022) set out the facts about the incident: the school suspected the girl was in possession of cannabis and were advised by their safer schools officer to call the police after an initial search found none.

The police carried out a strip search which again found no cannabis. This was done without the child’s parents being informed, without an appropriate adult present, and while the girl was menstruating.

The review determined that “adultification” had taken place – Child Q was treated as if she were an adult, despite being under-18. The fact that she was black was noted as a significant factor behind this adultification and both the school and the police were criticised for having an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of Child Q.

The guidance document Searching, screening and confiscation (DfE, 2022) was updated following the publication of the review (CHSCP, 2022).

The concerns and questions prompted by the Child Q case were also highlighted in March when the children's commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza published a report on strip searching in schools (2023). The report, which contained a raft of recommendations for the Home Office and police forces, showed that 2,847 children were strip-searched in England and Wales between 2018 and mid-2022.

The report found black children were up to six times more likely to be searched than the overall child population, and that 52% of searches took place without an appropriate adult confirmed to be present – a legal requirement, except when there is serious risk to a child's life or welfare. The data also showed that 51% of the searches led to no further action.

The findings will prompt concern among school leaders who will be anxious to ensure that their search policies do not put the safety of children at any risk.

The power to search pupils is embedded in the Education Act 1996 but schools need a good reason to use this power.

Statutory guidance says that schools can search in order to “provide a safe environment … and to maintain high standards of behaviour through which pupils can learn and thrive”.

In most cases schools will carry out a search in order to keep everyone in the school safe and when there are reasonable grounds to suspect the pupil possesses a banned or prohibited item. These searches can be done by the headteacher or an authorised member of staff, including school security.

“Prohibited items” are those that are listed in the legislation (DfE, 2022). Some examples include weapons (such as knives and firearms), any item a staff member suspects is likely to be used to cause personal injury (for example, a drinks bottle filled with acid that the staff member suspects will be used to attack another pupil), alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, and stolen items.

“Banned items” are those that the school rules, usually the behaviour policy, identify as an item that may be searched for. There is no exhaustive list of these, but it could include items such as mobile phones or “stink bombs”.

This distinction between prohibited and banned items is important because schools can use reasonable force to search for prohibited items – but not banned items.

The person searching must be the same sex and there must also be a same-sex witness present unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Only outer clothing, pockets, and possessions may be searched by schools. If a more thorough search – a strip search – is required for a prohibited item then the police have to be called.

So, how can schools ensure their searching policy does not imperil the safeguarding of children? Here are five key points to consider:

  • Keep good records: Record what happened and why and report any challenges to partner agencies. Recording the ethnicity and gender of those being searched may help you to develop a picture of possible trends and how these might be addressed.
  • Involve your governors and trustees: Governors should hold you to account over searching in the school. Ensuring that governors and trustees get detailed searching records will help them to understand searching trends and patterns and hold the school to account.
  • Empower children: It is important to debrief children after they have been searched. It can be a very distressing experience with significant consequences for their mental health. Give them a chance to talk about what has happened and ensure they are supported following any strip search. Try to capture the voice of the child in your records – and consider educating pupils about their rights when being searched.
  • Train staff: Appropriate training is vital for staff, especially if they are conducting searches using reasonable force. Talk with staff about adultification – seeing a child as more mature and adult-like than they actually are – as this could led to the child not being appropriately safeguarded. There are concerns that black children are more likely to be victims of this bias. Staff should also feel confident in challenging senior leaders around searches if they have concerns.
  • Involve the designated safeguarding lead and headteacher: Even if they are not doing the searches themselves they need to be kept updated about any searches. Any decision to call the police in should be made by the headteacher in close consultation with the designated safeguarding lead.

James Simoniti is a former police detective with a background of child protection policing and investigations into individuals with a position of trust. He is now a safeguarding consultant at Judicium Education, which supports schools with their safeguarding matters and carries out safeguarding audits. Judicium also offers a model searching and screening policy. Visit www.judiciumeducation.co.uk/safeguarding-service or follow @JudiciumEDU

    Sec Ed article - https://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/learning-from-child-q-five-steps-for-safer-student-searches-school-safeguarding-child-protection/

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