Sexual harassment and assault claims made by school pupils on a website may be the “next child abuse scandal that engulfs the nation”, police have said.
A police helpline is to be set up to report incidents, after thousands of allegations were posted, most of them about the behaviour of other pupils.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection said the issue presented a huge challenge to society.
Ministers say anyone making allegations will get support and protection.
The website Everyone’s Invited was set up last year as a place where victims can post anonymous accounts of abuse they had suffered.
It has now received more than 6,000 testimonies – including accounts from children as young as nine.
Many of the accounts about sexual harassment, abuse or even rape in schools or involving other school pupils concern leading private institutions, but police have stressed the allegations involve more than just that sector.
The website’s founder Soma Sara said: “In the past week we have seen a very significant increase and widening of that demographic – in the increase of state schools and universities being mentioned – as well as a wider variety of ages – older people, younger people, boys and girls. And I think what this really shows is that this is a universal problem.”
Anonymous testimonies listed on the site do not reveal the identity of the pupil or their attacker but in almost every case the school – or schools – are named. Not all of the incidents recounted are on school or university premises.
Experiences range from being drugged and raped at parties, to explicit images being shared over social media platforms.
For decades, there have been many prosecutions of teachers and other staff – but less of a national focus on other sexually-motivated attacks in and around schools.
Police are now asking victims to come forward and a helpline will be launched by the Department for Education in the next week for those wishing to get support, and potentially report their complaints.
‘Police’s huge challenge’
Chief Constable Simon Bailey from the National Police Chiefs’ Council told the BBC he suspects the claims being made will have a similar impact to the scandal that followed the revelations into historical child sexual abuse in football.
“We have a huge challenge and ultimately this is down to parents and guardians making sure that their children understand what healthy relationships look like, what healthy sexual relationships look like – and it’s so important that schools reinforce that message consistently,” he said.
“We challenge the culture within education where misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assaults are – not condoned – but, I suspect, on occasions, are being tolerated.”
The Department for Education said it was very concerned by the allegations posted on Everyone’s Invited.
A spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of schools, colleges and universities take their safeguarding responsibilities very seriously, so it is particularly shocking when allegations of abuse are made in connection with a place of education where everyone should feel secure and be protected.
“Working together, the Department for Education, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council are in contact with Everyone’s Invited to provide support, protection and advice to those who are reporting abuse, including on contacting professionals or the police if they wish.”
The Metropolitan Police has already confirmed it has been “reviewing the content” of Everyone’s Invited and contacted schools it could identify.
In June 2020, Ms Sara, who is now 22, shared her experience on Instagram of what she calls “rape culture”.
Within a week she had received and shared more than 300 anonymous responses of people with stories of “misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault”.