Former pupils at a private school in south-east London who compiled a dossier of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations were shocked to receive a letter from the school’s lawyers accusing them of obstructing investigations into the incidents.
The students, who went to Eltham College in Bromley, said they expected to receive a compassionate response after they collected testimonies from pupils past and present alleging sexism, sexual harassment, abuse and assault, and forwarded them to the school, inspired by the Everyone’s Invited anti-rape movement.
After a meeting with ex-pupils last month however, the school instructed its lawyers, GBH Law, to write to the students via email defending Eltham College’s safeguarding record and accusing them of “hampering” the school’s ability to investigate the allegations properly by failing to provide any detailed evidence.
Hannah Tompkins, the lead organiser of the dossier, told the Guardian: “I was shocked at such an intimidating attack on me when I have done everything I can to aid investigation with the sole intention of ensuring victims are heard and effective change is implemented.
“I feel the letter was an attempt to deflect from the school’s failure to fulfil its safeguarding responsibilities and intimidate us into the very silence we are all trying to break.”
GBH Law wrote again to the students on Thursday stating the original letter was intended only to formally clarify the school’s position. “It was not any attempt to intimidate or deflect from any perceived failure on its part.”
The allegations at Eltham College, which date mainly from 2016 to present day, are part of a growing acknowledgment of the scale of claims of sexual harassment, abuse and violence that pupils – mainly girls – endure both inside and outside school .
An Ofsted report on Thursday found it was so “normalised” that pupils don’t even bother to report it, meanwhile the Everyones’s Invited website 9 June published the names of almost 3000 UK schools – including Eltham College – mentioned in testimonies submitted to it.
The former Eltham College pupils claim their old school failed to report the dossier to the local authority and police as required under safeguarding duties and did not adequately inform parents and pupils about its contents, which the school disputes.
When it was sent to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sex Abuse by a third party, pupils were told it contained allegations of serious criminal offences including sexual offences by children and should be sent to the relevant safeguarding authorities. It has now been forwarded to Bromley council and police working on Operation Hydrant, which is coordinating investigations into non-recent child sex abuse allegations.
The first lawyers’ letter, dated 27 May, said the school’s safeguarding policies had been praised in three previous inspections and the college had treated the contents of the dossier “extremely seriously”, taking steps to improve the school’s reporting system and wellbeing curriculum.
“Our client has continued to ensure that these issues remain top of its agenda and that it liaises with all relevant parties, including the referral of one safeguarding issue to the police, attendance at one section 47 assessment strategy meeting with social services and supporting social services in fulfilling their role.”
It continued: “We understand that our client has been hampered in its on-going efforts to assist the police, social services and any relevant bodies with their inquiries and investigating the matters raised in your dossier by the fact that you have not provided any detailed evidence to the school to enable them to investigate.
“We are therefore instructed by our client to formally request that you now comply with current safeguarding advice and provide confirmation that you have fulfilled your obligations and duty of care in relation to those who have voluntarily participated with providing information by passing that information on to the relevant bodies, including our client, to enable them to fully investigate and address the issues raised.”
The former pupils maintain that they have given all the information they can, but much of it was provided anonymously. Head master Guy Sanderson said: “We remain very much engaged with the issues that have been raised, and continue to listen to our current and former students and parents.
“Safeguarding remains our top priority and we want to do everything we can to make our pupils feel safe and fully supported. We have very strong pastoral procedures and reporting systems in place, and these will be kept under regular review to ensure they remain fully fit for purpose.
“The sheer scale of this problem across the country has been highlighted further with the publication of Ofsted’s safeguarding report. The kind of sexual harassment described has no place either in school and or – as the children’s commissioner has stated – in wider society.”
Earlier this year, former students at the college, which charges annual fees of almost £19,000 for older pupils, shared a questionnaire seeking pupils’ experiences. As at other schools across the country, the survey uncovered allegations of misogyny and sexism, of indecent pictures being shared online, of girls being coerced into having sex, of sexual harassment and assault within and outside school grounds and a culture of silence.
Speaking after the publication of the Ofsted report, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable. No young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.”