26 Oct 2022

Children coerced into sexualised incidents at school

7:00 am on 26 October 2022

When very young children say they are coerced into sexualised encounters at school, parents expect a response from the school's leaders. For two families, it's been a years-long struggle to protect their children from ongoing harm.

Young girl with sad and withdrawn expression walking away from two bullies

In her first two years at school, Emma was involved in a number of sexualised incidents, which led to teasing and bullying, her mother says. Photo: RNZ

Six-year-old Emma Simpson* sits at the kitchen table drawing.

With a thick colour pencil she sketches the outline of a princess. There are tears streaming down the princess's face. A speech bubble floating from her mouth reads: "I'm ugly."

Emma's mother, Kate Simpson*, glances at the picture and is worried. It's the fourth such drawing in recent weeks and she asks her daughter if she's okay. Emma just nods her head and keeps drawing.

It's only later that evening that Emma reveals how she's really feeling.

"We asked her to do something really benign like clean her room and she just exploded. She went: 'I'm not part of this family, I hate this life. It would be better if I wasn't here'," Simpson recalls.

For two years, Emma has been involved in a number of sexual incidents with other children in the playground at school and Kate says her daughter has been subjected to teasing and bullying as a result.

Kate and her husband Mark Simpson* have been appealing to the school to take action to stop the recurring sexualised behaviour their daughter has been exposed to. But the family say the school minimises every incident, has withheld important information and fails to acknowledge the mistakes it's made.

They're not the only ones. Another family told RNZ their child has had similar sexualised experiences and they're also disappointed by the school's response.

The school

For legal reasons, RNZ is not publishing the name of the school.

We have also used pseudonyms to protect the identities of children involved.

There are, however, a few things we can say about the school.

For a time, the school's board was replaced by a commissioner. The allegations of sexualised behaviour between students, and how they were responded to by staff, involve the principal, the board and the commissioner.

The commissioner and the current board have responded to RNZ's questions with broad, written statements. The principal has not responded to a number of requests for comment.

RNZ has obtained some of the school's own records of the incidents and spoken at length with the parents of two children affected.

Playing 'families'

The Simpsons' struggle with the school started when Emma, then aged five, revealed during a car ride home from school that she had a "boyfriend".

"Oh, that's exciting," Kate said tentatively before asking her daughter: "So, what does that mean?"

She nearly drove off the road at Emma's response.

"He wants to kiss me. But it's a bit gross because he wants to kiss me on the vagina and I don't think that's okay."

Simpson phoned the principal as soon as she got home. She says the principal promised to follow up with the boy's parents the next day.

"We heard nothing back. We just assumed the principal had dealt with it appropriately and that it was an isolated incident."

It wasn't.

A few months later, Simpson says she received a call from the deputy principal to say Emma might be upset when she arrived home.

"She didn't go into any details of why this was. We were expecting she had been teased or maybe had a grazed knee or something."

Instead, Emma told Kate she had been playing 'families' with a group of children in a secluded part of the playground and was asked to show her underwear and vagina.

When she refused, she was grabbed by the arms and held while her pants and underwear were pulled down.

Emma was yelling and trying to punch the other students when a teacher found them.

The Simpsons were aghast the deputy principal hadn't informed them of the sexual nature of the incident when she called.

"If Emma hadn't told us what happened, we would have never known."

The next day, the Simpsons contacted the school's commissioner, the police and the Ministry of Education. The school also reported the incident to the ministry.

The Simpsons told the school commissioner they were concerned the school hadn't informed them about the sexual nature of the incident.

The school closed off that part of the playground and promised to restrict the children to certain play areas and monitor them closely. The following week they brought in the police to run a Keeping Ourselves Safe programme.

The school was in frequent contact with STOP, a community-based programme for children displaying concerning sexual behaviour, which offered them advice.

STOP told the school the sexualised behaviour was all "within the normal realm of children playing" and advised the school to be consistent with its messaging that 'privates are private,' according to the school's report on the incident.

However, STOP was concerned the behaviour stemmed from playing 'families' and asked the school to investigate this further by asking the children what this entailed.

The Simpsons met with STOP and left wondering how much information the agency was actually given about the incidents. They say STOP seemed to have the impression the incidents involving their daughter were on its "green traffic light" - which reflect safe and healthy sexual behaviour.

"We have looked at the traffic light system and we feel that nearly all of these incidents fall in the orange, if not red of the traffic light system. So we feel really disappointed that STOP themselves were under the impression that all of these incidents were somehow okay," Simpson says.

Under STOP's traffic light system, "green" behaviours reflect normal sexual curiosity and are mutual and consensual experimentation and interest in body parts. "Amber" behaviours include displaying adult-like sexual behaviours inappropriate for young children, such as pulling other children's pants down and wanting to touch others genitals against their will. "Red" behaviours include simulation of sexual activity in play and forcing other children to engage in sexual play.

Citing privacy reasons, STOP declined to speak to RNZ about what was discussed at its meeting with the Simpsons or what information the school provided the agency.

The police took no action because of the young age of all involved. The Simpsons requested a restorative meeting with the school and the parents of the other children involved in the incident. They also made a formal complaint to the school about its failure to inform them about the sexual nature of the incident.

The school's report

If they thought what had gone on didn't belong on a "green" traffic light then, the Simpsons would later see red.

It took them nearly eight months - and a complaint to the Privacy Commission - to get hold of the school's redacted report about the incident. What they read shocked them.

"It was written down that our daughter had touched other children sexually, and that our daughter had been touched sexually."

The report showed a teacher quizzed each child separately about what happened. All gave varying accounts but one claimed Emma licked another child's genitals, though this child denied that happened.

The Simpsons acknowledge they're never going to know exactly what happened that day - or even if anything happened at all - but believe the school should have immediately told them that there was a possibility Emma had inappropriately touched another child.

"Emma received counselling through an ACC sensitive claim based on the information that she was held and her pants removed," says Kate.

"Now we find out it was more serious than we had even anticipated. We feel like it's a lost opportunity to deal with those things at the time when it was fresh."

The school's report also said the Simpsons had been informed about the sexual nature of the incident.

Kate and Mark don't understand how the school could claim that, given they'd told the school commissioner Emma's account of being held while her pants were pulled down, and of their concerns at not being informed. There's no longer any evidence of that though - the commissioner doesn't have the notes from that meeting.

Later, they learned it wasn't the first time a sexual incident had occured in the same secluded part of the playground, and because of the history, it was supposed to have been closed off and children closely monitored.

They were further devastated to discover the school actively discouraged the police from referring one of the children involved in the incident to Oranga Tamariki.

The unredacted report, obtained by RNZ, shows that following the Simpsons' complaint to police, an officer visited the school. The police were worried that the sexualised behaviour displayed by one of the children in the incident was "learnt behaviour" and wondered what their "home life was like".

A senior staff member told the officer there's "nothing to be concerned about".

"I said that the family always back the school, they always help out, donate time and money and are always extremely supportive of us. I said I know the family well and I have absolutely no concerns for [name redacted by RNZ] and that I definitely don't think a referral to OT is necessary," they wrote of the conversation.

The school did, however, refer the child to STOP.

Hands forcefully holding down person's wrists.

Further incidents of sexualised behaviour, involving other children at the school were raised by a second set of parents. Photo: RNZ

More incidents, more concerned parents

Four months before Emma says she was held and her underwear removed, another six-year-old, Carla Brown*, was asked to show her genitals in the same secluded part of the playground.

Her mother, Mary Brown*, was called to the principal's office. The principal told her Carla and another child exposed themselves to each other, she says.

Mary was horrified. She was also horrified by what she says the principal said next.

"The principal made a comment that has stuck in my mind - that my daughter was a willing participant and it was just normal play for the age group."

Mary disagreed.

She says her daughter knows what is right and wrong behaviour when it comes to their bodies.

She believes the way the school labelled her daughter a willing participant led it to disregard another two incidents of a sexual nature involving Carla.

Carla then tells her mum about a further two incidents the school did not seem to be aware of. Mary says she alerted the school to these, but it does not investigate.

The incidents occurred despite promises the secluded part of the playground would be restricted and the children would be closely supervised.

"The children were meant to be supervised but clearly they weren't," Mary says.

Living with the scars

The Simpsons say the sexual incidents and bullying made their bubbly and happy 6-year-old withdrawn and moody.

"She was being told on a daily basis that she was not smart, that she had no worth. She was coming home very upset ... she was basically wanting to end her life," Kate says.

The Simpsons say her teachers also noticed she was not her usual self and last year they requested a meeting.

The Simpsons told the school Emma felt she was being bullied because of the playground incident where she was held and her pants were removed.

"We said it was the result of that incident but the principal and deputy principal evaded the issue," Kate says.

They asked the school to refer Emma for further counselling sessions, but later discovered the referral letter didn't mention bullying at all. Instead, the letter said Emma's homelife was the reason she was upset.

The school's minutes of that meeting, which the family obtained afterward, also surprised the Simpsons.

"The minutes say Emma is an anxious child, that she comes to school looking unkempt with hair over her face, that she is upset about a car accident that I had, that she's upset about her brother being hospitalised for three hours."

The report also described Emma as "untruthful" at times, which is news to her parents, who say any dishonesty has never been raised by the school.

The Simpsons felt hugely let down. They wanted help to end their daughter's bullying and instead felt the school dodged responsibility for everything occurring on its watch and landed the problems at their door.

"I think it's absolutely horrid the school is continuing to sweep things under the rug," Simpson says.

"They are continuing to deny that these things are even happening in their school."

Mary Brown has a similar story.

She says her daughter, Carla, has morphed from a "happy, resilient and polite child" to one who is "sullen, angry and disengaged".

She too says she feels let down by the school's handling of the issue and its failure to prevent further incidents occurring. The school is also failing to acknowledge and prevent the bullying Carla feels she is being subjected to since, she says.

The school has ignored her requests for Carla to be moved to a different class, Mary says.

"She doesn't feel safe. She wants to move schools."

But Mary says she cannot afford to switch schools, and she doesn't think Carla should have to either.

What is 'normal' sexual behaviour?

Auckland University paediatrician and child psychiatrist Dr Hiran Thabrew says it can be tricky to determine whether a child's sexual behaviour is normal.

Thabrew, who has no connection or involvement with the school or any families in this story, says normal sexual behaviour among young children is usually "light hearted".

"It's usually not associated with anger, fear or shame.

"Normal behaviours of this kind might include showing or looking at each other's genitalia, that kind of 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours'. But they usually stop when they're told not to do this by a parent."

Concerning sexualised behaviour might preoccupy a child and included sexual play that is not mutual.

"Harmful sexual behaviour includes force or coercion. So threats, violence, bribery, trickery and usually lack of consent," Thabrew says.

For some children, it is a way to manage tension or sadness if they experience emotional or physical abuse. "But it's important to know that most children who engage in problematic sexual behaviour have not been sexually abused," Thabrew says.

Punishing children who engage in concerning sexual behaviour is usually unhelpful and shame can also limit family engagement or involvement in addressing it. Many services, like STOP and Safe Network, provide "mana enhancing engagement" so children and their families can get the help they need, Thabrew says.

"That can be tricky when there's a lot of emotional anger around a particular incident.

"One of the hardest things I think for schools and families to do is to allow time for a good assessment or evaluation of what's happened to occur.

"Having said that, if this is a pattern of behaviour that's clearly established and that's affecting your child or school, then I think we can be more certain that something needs to be done.

"If this is a behaviour that can't be managed by the school alone, or with these publicly funded community services that I've mentioned, then this is where Oranga Tamariki might also need to become involved."

The problem persists

New Year, new pink lunchbox, new pink shoes, same problem.

It's the first day of school and Emma is approached by a child who wants to show her their genitals.

When Emma says no, the child asks to see hers instead. Emma says no again.

"It was in full view of teachers and other students at the time," Kate says.

However, she only learns about the incident after Emma tells her. The Simpsons request a restorative meeting with the school.

Their request, she says, is ignored. The principal emails to say they'll speak to the child's parents and the child will also be reminded their behaviour is "extremely naughty".

The Simpsons feel let down again by the response because it's not the first time this has happened, and it's not the last either.

If they thought the previous incident was bad, they are distraught following the most recent incident. Emma appears to have given up saying no.

She is once again requested to show her genitals at school and this time she complies because she's promised lots of money if she does.

The Simpsons again request a restorative meeting with the school and all families involved.

RNZ approached the school.

In a statement, the chair of the school's newly elected board of trustees said the board had "directly addressed incidents raised by two sets of parents around alleged sexually inappropripiate behaviour".

This included speaking and listening to parents involved and taking advice from specialist agencies like STOP, the Ministry of Education, police and Oranga Tamariki.

"Our advice from expert agencies was that the type of alleged behaviour fits within normal parameters for the age and stage of the children at the time, although clearly inappropriate in a school environment.

"We have also reviewed our handling of the incidents and the processes the school has used. We have offered mediation with the families concerned."

RNZ asked the school why a senior staff member had thought the amount of time and money one family donated to the school was relevant to consider when police had raised referring their child to Oranga Tamariki for concerning sexual behaviour. Citing privacy reasons, it didn't respond.

The Simpsons confirm they have been offered a mediated meeting but it's with the principal and deputy principal and former commissioner - the subject of their complaints.

They say they have also been told the meeting cannot be recorded or minuted, though an agreement can be drafted if one is reached.

The Simpsons believe it's a conflict of interest for the school's senior management to hear complaints about themselves.

Emma is doing much better these days, but the Simpsons still feel a restorative meeting with the school and all families involved would help prevent further incidents occurring. They still haven't had a response to their repeated requests for one.

The Simpsons refuse to move Emma to another school because they want the school, not their daughter, to take responsibility for its failures.

"She's been with these kids since she was two years old. We don't think that she should be moved as a result of something that happened to her."

Carla is still feeling bullied and she's struggling, Mary says. She worries how the experience of the past few years is going to affect her as she gets older.

She believes the school is failing to provide a safe environment for Carla, and despite its promises, the inappropriate behaviour and teasing continues.

"It infuriates and frustrates me. I'm not confident that it won't happen again."

*Names have been changed.

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