Child Q and Safeguarding

by EMW

17 June 2023

Child Q and Safeguarding – A Salutary Lesson for Schools

Safeguarding in schools has been a key feature within the mainstream media over recent months. Most notably, a Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review report published in March 2022 highlighted a number of issues which arose as part of the strip search of a pupil (known as ‘Child Q’) in December 2020.

So, What Actually Happened?

In December 2020, Child Q (a female pupil) was alleged, by the school’s teachers, to have smelled strongly of cannabis. They suspected that she was in the possession of drugs and conducted a search of her bag, blazer, scarf and shoes but found nothing. The school subsequently sought advice from the Safer Schools Police Officer who advised the school to call 101 and ask for a female officer to attend.

Child Q was withdrawn from an exam and she was searched for drugs by two female police officers. No member of school staff stayed with Child Q and no Appropriate Adult was in attendance. Child Q was told to remove her outer clothing, exposing her intimate body parts and was forced to remove her sanitary towel, despite the fact that she was menstruating. No drugs were found. Child Q was then asked to go back into the exam room, although it is understood that Child Q took a taxi home where she had told her mother about the incident.

What Does The Guidance Say?

Police officers are governed by PACE Code C and Teachers should refer to the Department for Education’s Guidance on ‘Searching, Screening and Confiscation’. Whilst the guidance for police officers and teachers differs it is worth all schools being aware of the rules around both.

  • Who can conduct a search and what are the grounds for searching?

A police officer can only search an individual if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime.

A teacher can search a pupil for any item if the pupil consents to the search (although consideration should be given to the age of the pupil when deciding whether they can consent). However, if the search is without consent only the head teacher, or a member of staff authorised by the head teacher, can conduct a search. They must have reasonable grounds for suspecting the pupil may have prohibited items in their possession i.e. knives, weapons, illegal drugs, etc. The search must be conducted by a member of the same sex and with another staff member present as a witness (who should also be of the same sex). There is an exception to this if there is a risk that serious harm could be caused to an individual if the pupil is not searched immediately.

  • Location of search:

For police officers, a standard stop and search can be conducted anywhere. However, if an individual is required to take off clothes other than their outer clothing or anything that they are wearing for religious reasons, this must be out of the public view. For teachers, the search must take place on the school site and, as above, with a witness present.

  • During the search:

A police officer may ask an individual to remove their coat, jacket or gloves (i.e. outer clothing). They can also ask them to remove other items of clothing and/or anything the individual is wearing for religious reasons. If this is required, this must be out of public view and the officer requesting this/conducting the search must be of the same sex.

Teachers can only ask a pupil to remove their outer clothing (i.e. hats, shoes, boots, gloves and scarves) and/or empty their pockets/bag/locker. They cannot ask a pupil to remove any item of clothing that is worn next to the skin or immediately over a garment that is being worn as underwear.

  • Going further with the search:

Only a police officer can go ‘further with a search’ i.e. conduct a strip search. If an officer would like to go further with the search (such as the search conducted on Child Q), the police officer can only do so if they have a specific reason to search further. The strip search must then:

  • take place in private area;
  • be performed by an officer of the same sex; and
  • ensure that anyone under the age of 17 is accompanied by an Appropriate Adult (except in urgent cases where there is a risk of harm or if the individual has specifically stated that they do not want the Appropriate Adult there – if this is the case, this must be recorded and signed by the Appropriate Adult).

What did the Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review find?

Ultimately (and unsurprisingly) the report found that Child Q had been the subject of a huge safeguarding failure. In particular, it noted that:

  • the strip-search was unjustified and racism was likely to have been a factor;
  • school staff had an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of Child Q when responding to concerns;
  • an Appropriate Adult should have been present with Child Q when she was searched as this was not an urgent case;
  • there was no clear, specific reason for the police to go further with the search; and
  • Child Q’s parents should have been contacted prior to or after the search.

It was recommended that the Department for Education (“DfE”) should review/revise its guidance on screening, record keeping and engaging with parents.

Various statements have since been issued by the Met police, Jim Gamble (Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner for City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership) and Nadhim Zahawi (Secretary of State for Education). Mr Zahawi has revealed that he will set out a new policy in response to this incident but no further details have been provided at this time.

The school expressed remorse at failing to properly safeguard Child Q and it serves as a salutary reminder that all schools (both maintained and independent) remain responsible for safeguarding pupils, even where other professionals (such as the police) become involved. It is understood that Child Q has brought claims against both the school and the police.

Unfortunately, the Government’s recent consultation on revisions to the ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ (“KCSIE”) statutory guidance concluded on 11 March 2022 (only 3 days prior to the report on Child Q), thus we are unlikely to see any significant amendments or assistance in this guidance once it is issued in September 2022. One key proposed amendment to the KCSIE guidance is for safeguarding training to be part of the induction process for governors and trustees and that this training should be updated regularly. One can hope that, until updated DfE guidance is issued on screening, record keeping and engaging with parents, the lessons learned from Child Q’s case will be reflected in all upcoming safeguarding training for governors, trustees and school staff alike.

This article was prepared by Emily Dickinson.
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