Ministers must “urgently” revise school search guidance that is overly-focused on discipline as it could “promote poor practice” following a “deeply disturbing” police strip-and-search of a black schoolgirl.
The Metropolitan Police has admitted the “humiliating” search of a girl who “smelled of cannabis”, in the unnamed Hackney secondary school’s medical room in December 2020, “should never have happened”.
A safeguarding report found the 15-year-old’s intimate body parts were exposed, without an appropriate adult present and “with the knowledge” the child was menstruating.
The Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review also found racism “was likely to have been an influencing factor” when deciding to undertake a strip search.
Staff at the ‘good’-rated school should have “been more challenging to the police”, had “insufficient focus” on safeguarding needs about suspected drug use and “deferred” to the police’s authority.
Warning: this article includes graphic content
Two of the report’s 14 recommendations call for the Department for Education to “review and revise” its 2018 guidance on “searching, screening and confiscation”. They said parts could “run the risk of promoting poor practice”.
“As framed, its tone is largely about discipline and is likely to lead front-line staff down this path of practice,” the report states.
Girl was not ‘allowed to clean herself’
Teachers told the review they believed the child was “smelling strongly of cannabis” and suspected she might have been carrying drugs, which she denied.
Nothing was found after search of her bag, blazer, scarf and shoes, but teachers sought advice from the Safer Schools Police Officer who was not on site because of Covid restrictions.
The officer recommended the school call the non-emergency police line and ask for a female officer to attend. When they arrived, the child was pulled out of a mock exam and strip searched, where no drugs were found.
Her family said she was “made to bend over, spread her legs, use her hand to spread her buttocks cheek whilst coughing”. They say the child had to take her sanitary towel off and put the same one back on “because they would not allow her” to use the bathroom to “clean herself”.
Her mum added the incident “was not treated as a safeguarding issue” but as a criminal one, adding her daughter is a “changed person”.
Guidance ‘runs risk of poor practice’
The review found that it is “unlikely” the school was informed by the police officers of their intention to strip search the child.
The panel said DfE’s guidance on searching children could be “strengthened by including much strong reference to the primary need to safeguard children”.
They say it “worryingly” contains “outdated terminology” that should be “urgently corrected”, such as “child pornography”.
There was also “little thought” given to the importance of contacting a family member. The panel said the guidance is “light on the inclusion of parental consent as an issue of importance”.
While the panel agreed schools are not required to inform parents before a search takes place, the statement that “no legal requirement” to keep a record of the search is “permissive” and “runs the risk of promoting poor practice”.
DfE guidance says schools “should” inform parents where illegal substances are found, but there “is no legal requirement to do so”. But the panel said this risks “schools not doing anything”.
“In Child Q’s case, she was the one who had to tell her mother she had been searched by the school and stripped searched by the police. In the opinion of the review, this ‘legally permissible practice’ is not good practice.”
An anonymous staff member is quoted in the report saying: “In hindsight I put my trust in the law; I know now that I need to understand the law better.”
They added: “This is the hardest thing that we’ve had to go through and for anyone to think
that the school might be complicit is very stressful and difficult to deal with.”
London mayor ‘extremely concerned’
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Hackney’s deputy mayor, and mayor Philip Glanville, said the “lack of challenge by school toward police” was one aspects that “appalled” them.
They said the governing board undertook an investigation “in order to understand how this situation was allowed to occurred including why school staff did not feel empowered to challenge the actions by the police”
“As a result the school has conducted reviews, including of roles and responsibilities in working with the police and an external evaluation of safeguarding.”
Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, said the case was “shocking and deeply disturbing”, adding: “No child should ever have to face a situation like this.”
Detective superintendent Dan Rutland, of the Met’s central east command, said this “should never have happened. It is truly regrettable and on behalf of the Met Police I would like to apologise to the child concerned, her family and the wider community.”
The DfE has been approached for comment.