Schools report children as young as 10 to police over social media abuse

Shocking incidents uncovered reveal the scale and severity of issues schools are now dealing with

Shocking incidents uncovered reveal the scale and severity of issues schools are now dealing with

10 Mar 2023, 7:00

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Children as young as 10 are among the offenders in thousands of social media abuse cases linked to schools that have been reported to the police over the past four years.

Shocking incidents uncovered as part of a Schools Week investigation reveal the scale and severity of issues schools are now dealing with from pupils using apps such as Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram.

They include female pupils edited into images of the holocaust to a pupil’s picture doctored to show she was a “suicide bomber”.

Videos of assault on pupils during school and threats to stab classmates have also been reported. One pupil messaged a classmate to say he would slit their throat, while another used TikTok to offer schoolmates £20 to stamp on another pupil.

Meanwhile, classmates sent a year 10 girl hate messages about her terminally ill mother. Other cases include racist and homophobic abuse.

Parents have also been reported for “slanderous” comments about a headteacher and a fake account that made inappropriate posts on photos of teenage girls.

Pressure grows on social media companies

Social media companies are under heightened scrutiny after weeks of pupil protests at schools, mostly arranged via their apps.

Sean Maher, the head of the Richard Challoner School in Surrey, said flagging problematic posts to sites was “hopeless. I worry the only way to get this under control is for [companies] to say this is not acceptable on my platform and ban or block accounts.”

Schools Week asked English police forces for details of social media abuse cases reported by schools in the past four years.

A total of 2,336 incidents were recorded between January 2018 and July last year, when our request was submitted.

But just four led to charges. Police said this was down to difficulty obtaining evidence and identifying the suspect, or victims withdrawing support.

Nine youths and three adults received a caution or conditional caution, while other cases may be ongoing. Crimes were recorded as harassment or malicious communications.

However, just 28 of the country’s 39 forces provided information, meaning the true figure is likely to be larger. The Metropolitan Police – the country’s largest force – refused to provide information.

Maher said pastoral staff dealt with social media incidents every day.

Schools ‘not seeking punishment’

Schools often did not seek “punishment” from police, but for officers to outline to pupils the potential consequences of behaviour “if they do it again. For the vast majority of young people, that’ll be enough.”

Nearly two-thirds of cases showed victims were children, with 77 per cent of wrongdoers identified as youngsters.

Cases were most likely to be on Instagram and Snapchat. TikTok was the third most cited, with some also on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Cases reported by schools where adults were suspects included parents allegedly posting “false and slanderous” messages about a head in Lancashire. No date was provided.

Another, recorded by the same force, involved a man accusing a victim on Facebook of “child abuse against his son”.

In May last year Wiltshire Police were told of an unknown suspect setting up a fake Instagram account before commenting “sexy” on a photo of 13 to 14-year-old female pupils.

Police notes show the “distressed” complainant was suspended from their job as a result. At the time the data was shared, the case was ongoing.

It is not known if the victim was a school staff member, but it is likely as all cases were linked to schools.

Schools Week previously revealed attacks on teachers in “abhorrent” TikTok videos. But teachers were left “banging their heads against a brick wall” trying to get posts removed.

Schools should deal with incidents first, say police

Hertfordshire, one of the five forces with the most incidents, said it worked “loosely” with local schools, including by “running educational sessions targeting local youth crime trends”.

A spokesperson for Merseyside police said its officers are “effectively embedded in schools supporting these matters” which was why so many cases were recorded and “fully investigated”.

The other three, Northamptonshire, West Midlands and Lancashire, did not respond.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said the “emphasis” was on schools to “initially deal with incidents themselves”, but to call police where there were aggravating factors or offences committed.

“Police do not seek to criminalise children, but if we are called to a school then officers have a responsibility to support that education partner, and keep the young person safe. Policing is only one part of the wider solution.”

Paul Walton, the deputy head at All Saints Catholic College in west London, has called in police several times over the past year, including over threats of violence. None led to police action.

He said staff were always “one step behind” as they tended not to use the apps themselves. Snapchat was “particularly difficult to police” because messages disappeared after views.

“A lot of our work is reactionary”, with pastoral staff “spending significant time investigating incidents”.

Leaders seek staff to ‘police’ social media

Pan Panayiotou, the head of Worthing High School in West Sussex, said he had spoken to leaders “looking to employ individuals who can police social media sites to keep abreast of what’s going on”.

Worthing had investigated claims made on TikTok about teachers.

Online safety and harms are often now taught as part of statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE).

But Bryden Joy, the lead practitioner for citizenship at Ormiston Academies Trust, said “more and more keeps getting put into PSHE”.

“And there rarely seems to be an addition of time to cover that. So how well can you cover the depth of what is needed to support these children?” he said during a Westminster Education Forum on children’s online safety this week.

Resolving issues has ‘impact on workload’

Tom Quinn, the chief executive of the Frank Field Education Trust, said schools could not police children’s use of social media “when they’re not in school”.

If parents were letting their children go through social media all hours of the night, “that’s irresponsible”.

Maher added that reporting issues to the platforms was “hopeless. We do occasionally report stuff and you get an automated message, but it usually takes a few weeks for it to come down.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the school leaders union ASCL, said schools were at the mercy of technology companies and their terms of service. “Time spent resolving these issues also has an impact on workload.”

A Snapchat spokesperson said it had “zero tolerance” towards platform misuse “and explicitly prohibits bullying and harassment of any kind”.

A TikTok spokesperson said bullying and harassment had “no place”. The app “proactively” removed content violating its community guidelines and encouraged users to report potentially “violative” videos.

Meta, which runs Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, said it had clear policies against bullying, harassment and hate speech and removed content when it became aware of it.

The Department for Education pointed to its proposed online safety bill which would force companies to make it easier to report harmful content online.

The vile social media abuse reported by schools

  • A Lancashire teenager said in a group chat she would “stab” another pupil, alongside a photo of a knife, while another messaged a classmate to say he would slit their throat.
  • In 2019, a year 10 girl in Cambridgeshire was sent messages of a “hate-filled nature” about her terminally ill mother.
  • Various Instagram accounts doctored images of the holocaust to add female pupils, while in Cambridgeshire an offender in 2019 tried to coerce pupils over TikTok into “stomping” on a victim for £20.
  • The same force recorded a 10-year-old asking a child of the same age for naked photos, before continuing “bullying” at school in 2021.
  • A male “spread rumours” that another pupil was gay via Snapchat last year, calling him a “faggot, poof, gayboy”, in a case reported to Cambridgeshire
  • Three suspects sent a racist voice note in which they called the victim a “fucking Paki” and told her to “kill herself” in an undated case recorded by Cleveland Police.
  • Pupils in Wiltshire doctored a photo of a classmate to make it look like she was a “suicide bomber”, alongside the caption “I’ve got a bomb”.

What the guidance says 

  • Schools deciding whether to involve police in such cases must ensure a “balance is struck” between the needs of students involved and the wider school community, NPCC guidance says.
  • Many incidents can be dealt with and resolved internally, and their seriousness is a “judgment call for the school”.
  • “Aggravating factors” which could make the incident more serious should be considered. 

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