Situation: Sally Baker (not her real name) is 14 years old and
has mild learning difficulties. She is fairly independent – for
example, she makes her own way to and from school and is looking
forward to going to college with her school friends – but
frequently displays verbal outbursts and, as such, is considered to
have “challenging behaviour”. Sally attends a mainstream school but
has a learning support teacher.
Problem: Sally came home from school one afternoon very
distressed. She told her mother and father that she had been hit by
her learning support teacher that morning. It became clear that
Sally’s distress was, in fact, fear. Sally’s parents contacted the
head teacher, who thought it all “something and nothing”. She said
the school had already investigated the situation and could uncover
no evidence. The parents explained that Sally was too scared to
attend school. The school’s view was that the learning support
teacher had been appointed just to support Sally and that she must
return because there was no problem. It turns out that the school
“investigation” had not been as thorough as perhaps it had been
suggested. Sally has not been formally interviewed as part of any
complaints investigation, nor have any of the other children been
interviewed singularly or in a group. So far, the parents are aware
only that the “investigation” amounted to the head teacher asking
Sally what it was all about, but did this in the presence of the
learning support teacher.
Sally is entitled to a full investigation into her
allegations that she had been struck by her support teacher. This
should be conducted by the child protection teams within the
context of locally based procedures and the national guidelines in
Working Together to Safeguard Children, which sets out how agencies
and professionals should co-operate to promote children’s welfare
and protect them from abuse and neglect.
Child protection investigations are usually carried out jointly
with police, social services and other relevant agencies including,
in this type of scenario, education representatives. It is clearly
not appropriate for a single agency to conduct an investigation and
suggest that it somehow constitutes a proper child protection
It is important that Sally and her parents are reassured that the
matter will be properly explored and that her fears and anxiety are
the focus of their attention. Child protection investigations at
their best are conducted in a sensitive and constructive manner for
all concerned. The investigation will also consider the
implications for the teacher should the allegations be a result of
a misunderstanding or confusion. It will be important that this is
clearly understood and that a plan is in place, should there be a
reoccurrence, that all concerned can be confident with.
We have some evidence that it is more difficult for disabled
children to voice this sort of concern and that they are
under-represented in our child protection statistics. With this in
mind, it is vital that any investigation should be tuned to Sally’s
special needs and it may be necessary to consider the use of
If the investigation concludes that there are no child protection
concerns, the family and the school will need support to
re-establish Sally’s relationship with her learning support teacher
and the school. The school and the teacher will also need support
and a clear understanding of what to do should there be further
On the other hand, if it is concluded that there are child
protection matters, they should be responded to appropriately so
that Sally or any other child is not placed at further risk.
Sally is a young woman who should be taken seriously.
Something is obviously wrong and we owe it to her to get to the
bottom of this. It seems that her reaction – distress that was
later realised to be fear – is not something she would normally do.
This has rung alarm bells for her parents but is all too easily
dismissed by the school as “something and nothing”. That, in
itself, suggests not only that something – however minor – did
happen but also that the school has very casual attitude to this
type of allegation.
Sally, her parents and social worker should insist that the school
conducts a full investigation. If the investigation that took place
was as described in the case study – with only Sally being
interviewed and in the presence of the learning support teacher who
had allegedly hit her – this is simply unacceptable. What faith can
anybody put in such a way of carrying out an investigation?
Sally may have challenging behaviour sometimes but that does not
mean she is in the wrong here. She may be young and she may cause
problems with her verbal outbursts, but that does not put her in
the wrong in this case either. It seems the school is using that to
get away with inaction. It seems it might be using Sally’s
behaviour as an excuse to say that she is difficult, becomes upset
too easily and is making a big fuss about nothing. I’m not so
Perhaps the social services complaints department could involve
itself. If a young person brings a complaint it must be
investigated by someone not involved in the case. In social
services complaints this investigator is also accompanied by an
independent person who makes sure that the case is investigated
properly. I would imagine that the independent person would have a
lot to say about how the school conducted its own investigation in
the first place.
Sally and her parents could also see if they could have an
impartial advocate to see that things are done properly. She needs
somebody who knows what should happen and ensure that she is
Whatever the outcome of a proper impartial investigation, this
young woman is as entitled as anyone to be heard.
Picture this. A student says she has been hit by her teacher.
She tells her parents. The school investigates and gives the
student a chance to tell her story. If found guilty, the teacher is
fired and may never teach again. Abuse to children is not on.
Now, another scenario. A student with learning difficulties says
she has been hit by her teacher. She tells her parents. The school
investigates and gives the student a chance to tell her story. But
here is the catch. The student needs support to tell her story. She
is given no choice in who supports her and is given the same person
that might have hit her as support. The teacher is found not
guiltyÉ or was it okay for her to hit the student because she
has “challenging behaviour”?
Stories like this second picture make us angry. Now and then
people file complaints against our organisation. When this happens,
an independent investigation is held. All the accused can tell
their side of the story and choose their support. The complainants
also have their say. The independent group decides whether the
complaint was fair. This is the responsible mode of action.
This school has not properly investigated Sally’s complaint.
Instead, it has taken away her rights to have a real say in the
investigation of what she says happened. It has made a vulnerable
person more vulnerable. After all, it is known that people with
learning difficulties are four times more likely to be abused than
non-disabled people. It seems the school might have focused on what
they call Sally’s “challenging behaviours”.
Sally should be offered an advocate to support her and ensure
that she has a proper say in the investigation. We advise Sally to
make a report to the police because hitting someone is assault. She
could ask her social worker for help. Sally should write to the
school governors and the head of the education authority about what
has happened. She may need a lawyer to make sure she can have her
say. It is sad that people like us can be so discriminated against
that even assault is seen as okay.
Pasquelina Cerrone, Kathleen Franklin and Cheryl
Priestley are members of learning difficulties self-advocacy group
Milton Keynes People First. They would like to thank Voice UK for
some of the ideas for what Sally can do. Voice UK supports people
with learning difficulties involved in the criminal justice system
and who have been abused. Their helpline number is 01332