E-safety: Our daughter’s death should change things forever

An assistant coroner concluded that her school’s e-safety failures contributed to Frankie’s death, writes Judy Thomas. Could it happen in your school?

An assistant coroner concluded that her school’s e-safety failures contributed to Frankie’s death, writes Judy Thomas. Could it happen in your school?

2 Dec 2022, 5:00

Aged 15, our daughter, Frankie took her own life at home in September 2018 after a ‘normal’ day at school. She had no history of suicide attempts. Andy and I were devastated and at an absolute loss as to why she had done this. 

It was only the school’s scrutiny of her actions that day that revealed Frankie had been on a school iPad for over 2 hours, unsupervised. She had accessed material about violent rape, self-harm and stories on the site Wattpad that ended in suicide, the last of which she copied later in her bedroom. 

A forensic search of her school laptop also revealed Frankie had accessed other sites at school over the year, where she researched horrific material on self-harm and suicide. We, the school and Ofsted were totally unaware this was happening. Months before Frankie’s death, an Ofsted report said safeguarding policies were up-to-date. “Pupils are appropriately supervised at all times,” it read. Less than a year later, a full inspection said safeguarding was ‘effective’.

Yet the school’s independent technician, employed after that report, revealed at Frankie’s inquest that the school had purchased new equipment shortly after her death but that shockingly, a year on, it was still not set up correctly. iPads were still unfiltered. He explained all that had to be put right for the e-safety filters and monitoring to function properly, proving just how vital it is for schools to budget not just for online safety tools but for the expertise to run them.

Now, daily alerts flag attempts to access blocked sites to him and several other staff. These are followed by immediate further communication about who is attending to the pupil concerned. The pupil is found (within 7 minutes on average), spoken with, and findings relayed back to the group. 

Schools shouldn’t wait; they must act now

It should be mandatory for schools to ensure that such alerts are regularly produced, received, acted on and records kept – and Ofsted/ISI should check this is happening. Accountability for e-safety should be no less important than fire safety checks. Frankie’s school had assumed their system was working because there were no alerts – an appalling loophole.

The school’s technician also regularly tests the system by attempting to access sites that are blocked to staff and students. After all, it is mandatory to regularly check fire alarms are working. In both cases, failure to do so can prove fatal.

But while the stories Frankie accessed the day she died glorified suicide, they did not actually have that word in their titles or content. A filter will only read titles, but a screen reader such as NetSupport DNA will also search content and send alerts, and Guided Access will limit a student’s searches to the content of the lesson they are attending. Both of these are now in use at Frankie’s school, and the assistant coroner was curious as to why the DfE’s guidance doesn’t advise this. 

If Frankie had been in a lesson, these would have helped. Sadly she was not, underlining the vital importance of supervision.

The assistant coroner also criticised the DfE’s lack of guidance regarding blocklists. Wattpad is used in some secondary schools, along with other equally dangerous sites. In my opinion, the DfE’s Keeping Children Safe in Education is insufficient. It states that governing bodies of state schools and proprietors of independent ones “should ensure their school or college has appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place”. No. They “must ensure” that such systems are “in place and working”.

None of our requests to meet any of the five education secretaries since the coroner’s Prevention of Future Deaths report have ever been granted. However, a meeting with the DfE is now scheduled and our MP, Michael Gove and the Children’s Commissioner, Rachel De Souza have committed to accompanying us.

Whatever the outcome of this meeting, schools shouldn’t wait; they must act now. Help and advice are available to get started.

To find your lively 15-year-old daughter dead – just like that – changes you forever. And it was preventable. There can be no complacency in stopping this from ever happening again.

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