Monday 22 April 2019

Sinead Moriarty: Our five-year-olds have not become sexual predators - let's get a grip

It's hard to believe that a five-year-old girl could really sexually assault a five-year-old boy at school. No details of the alleged assault have emerged, but you have to wonder if it wasn't a slight overreaction on the part of the school and parents. (Stock photo)
It's hard to believe that a five-year-old girl could really sexually assault a five-year-old boy at school. No details of the alleged assault have emerged, but you have to wonder if it wasn't a slight overreaction on the part of the school and parents. (Stock photo)
Sinead Moriarty

Sinead Moriarty

Children as young as five are being reported to police on suspicion of 'sexually assaulting' their classmates.

In a world of helicopter parenting and over-protective child-rearing, news that children could be assaulting each other in Junior Infants will send parents into a tailspin.

In England, a five-year-old girl has just been accused of attacking a five-year-old boy in her class. The number of sexual offence claims brought about by or about schoolchildren in the UK has trebled in the four years since the Jimmy Savile scandal broke.

Have our five-year-olds really become sexual predators or is there a hint of hysterical overreacting involved?

With so many sexualised images in front of young children 24/7, we certainly need to educate them at a younger age about their bodies and what is appropriate and what's not.

But by the same token, every child is naturally curious. Every school yard since time began has seen young children innocently kissing each other in the corner to 'see what it tastes like' or showing parts of their bodies to their friends. It's not done in a sexual way, it's an innocent curiosity.

Obviously teachers and parents need to be vigilant and there will always be exceptions to the rules, but it's hard to believe that a five-year-old girl could really sexually assault a five-year-old boy at school. No details of the alleged assault have emerged, but you have to wonder if it wasn't a slight overreaction on the part of the school and parents.

Granted, schools are in a difficult situation, as they now have to report everything. If they don't, they could be sued. We live in a litigious society and it's understandable that everyone is being extremely cautious, especially when it comes to children.

Cari, the voluntary organisation providing child-centred therapy and support to children affected by child sexual abuse, says, "If there is no age difference between the two children or no difference in status, power or intellect, then one could argue that this is indeed experimentation."

I remember my son, aged five, coming home with teeth marks up and down his arm. He was being bitten by a classmate and the school had to report it to me and the other boy's mortified mother.

Obviously, the boy wasn't coming to school with the intention of assaulting my son, he was just a young boy acting out. I wasn't running to the police.

Of course, we want our children to be safe and we want their teachers to be vigilant.

But perhaps in some cases overly cautious teachers are mistaking a young child's natural sexual exploration and assuming it's assault.

No one is saying sexual assault and abuse doesn't go on in schools. We've all read the horror stories of young children being abused by priests and teachers or bullied mercilessly by their peers.

The difference here is that the very young age of the children being accused of assault makes it hard to believe it could be done with real malice or intent to harm.

If you are, however, genuinely worried about your child being assaulted at school, the process, unfortunately, is not straightforward.

School complaints procedures in Ireland involve the parents having to approach the teacher; if that doesn't work, they must then go to the principal. After that, it's on to the chair of the board of management, followed by the board of management itself.

Aine Lynch, CEO of the National Parent's Council (NPC) Primary believes that the school complaints procedures need to be changed.

"This is a mechanism for parents to follow within a school and yet neither the parents nor the national body that represents parents were ever consulted."

Lynch believes that the system can be intimidating for parents and also says that many school don't follow through on their own investigations and procedures. She believes that each school should have its own complaints procedure and parents should be consulted about it.

There is currently no requirement for a board of management to report on complaints and therefore no centralised record of complaints.

At the moment, if a parent is unhappy with the outcome of a school complaint at board or management level, in other words, the highest level they can go to within the school, they can then bring it to the Ombudsman for Children. However, the Ombudsman can only recommend policy changes and cannot find against any named individual.

If, however, you feel that your child is truly at risk, you can take your complaint to the Department of Education and Skills. Your complaint will then be passed on to the relevant authorities for investigation - the Health Service Executive (HSE) and/or the Garda Síochána.

It is unlikely that a five-year-old would intentionally sexually assault a classmate but perhaps they are mirroring what they have seen and experienced at home. Some children have very dysfunctional home lives and it's important for parents and especially teachers to take that into consideration too.

But children don't come into the world wishing to harm each other. We should give young kids the benefit of the doubt before jumping to conclusions and accusing the poor young things of serious wrongdoing.

Irish Independent

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