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Investigating and responding to sexual bullying

When creating responses to bullying, ABA has a three-step response framework. You can find out more about it in our free CPD online course on responding to bullying

Responding to bullying diagram

We've written some tips to consider when responding when you think sexual bullying has taken place. You can read more in our Sexual Bullying: A guide for schools and settings guidance at the bottom of this page. 

Key questions to ask yourself when investigating sexualised behaviour between children and young people: 

  • Is this a safeguarding issue? The first, and most important, thing to consider is ‘Do I need to treat this as a safeguarding issue?’. Some types of sexual bullying could be considered to be harmful sexual behaviour, or peer on peer abuse and, if this is the case, you will need to consult with your Designated Safeguarding Lead and your Safeguarding policies
  • Is the behaviour age appropriate and appropriate to the level of development of the children involved – or could the person have been coerced?
  • Is there a power imbalance between those involved (e.g. age difference, physical strength and capability, emotional development)?
  • Are those involved equipped to describe their wants and desires and to give consent?
  • Is the behaviour potentially harmful or risky? (e.g. the distribution of sexual photos or video content).
  • Is the behaviour appropriate to the school environment (regardless of whether you consider it to be consensual)?

Top tips: 

  • Listen and take complaints seriously: Children and young people frequently report that they are not listened to or believed when they try to report bullying – this is particularly the case for disabled young people and those with SEN. Take every complaint seriously, talk to the young person about action they would like you to take and respect this as far as it allows you to keep the young person safe. Be mindful not to ask leading questions as this could bias the response to a serious incident that may need further escalation.
  • Sanction as appropriate but take every opportunity to educate: The sanctions you take will depend on the nature of the incident, the age and development level of the child or young person involved, and whether this is a repeated incident. While it is important that children recognise that their behaviour has consequences, your response should also include support for all children involved: the target may be fearful of repercussions from the peer group and may need protection and help to rebuild their confidence. The perpetrator will need support to change their behaviour. You should also consider whether this points to a broader culture of sexual bullying and harm amongst the peer group that needs to be addressed. It is also important to check for any bias that may be influencing your decision. Certain minority ethnic groups are significantly more likely to be excluded for sexual misconduct, suggesting there is a worrying trend of systemic racism that can impact decision making.
  • Record and report: Make a note as soon as an incident has been disclosed to you. Report all incidents to the designated safeguarding lead. Keep a record of incidents. Bullying by its very nature is repetitive and so careful record keeping allows you to identify whether this is a one-off incident, or a pattern of behaviour. It also provides important evidence should you need to sanction a child at a later date or provide information in the event of a further incident or investigation.
  • Confidentiality is vital: These can be challenging issues for children and young people to share so it is very important that they trust you to keep information private (as far as you are able, according to your safeguarding policy). Be aware of potential repercussions amongst the peer group. Only share on a need to know basis and consider carefully how and when you share information with parents and carers.
  • Do not forget incidents outside of the school environment: All headteachers have powers to sanction behaviour outside of school ‘to such an extent as is reasonable’. Sexual bullying can also happen online, on the journey to and from school and on school trips and it is vital this is included in your anti-bullying policy.