The treatment received by Child Q in a Hackney school has shocked and outraged many people in the UK. Met police officers strip searched an underage Black schoolgirl while on her period, on school premises, after staff wrongly suspected she possessed cannabis. This was the result of failings by both the school and the police. The report produced from the investigation has highlighted that racism was a factor. While this might surprise many, it came as no surprise to many people of colour and certainly not the parents of black children. This incident has caused outrage across wide sections of society with many saying that ‘enough is enough’. The police and school have by far overstepped the mark. But this is not an isolated incident and our children are clearly suffering as a consequence.
Child Q was in an environment where she was supposed to feel safe and protected. But instead, she was taken away from her exam by the people who were supposed to protect her and stripped naked by police officers while she was on her period. Child Q was forced to remove her sanitary towel and after their humiliating examination, was then forced to put the same used sanitary towel back on as she was denied the use of a restroom to clean herself up. Child Q was then escorted back to her exam without any care or concern for how she must be feeling. The result of this disgusting, inhumane treatment of Child Q while preparing for the most important exams of her life is that she has described how she cannot go a single day without wanting to scream, cry, shout or just give up. She doesn’t know if she will ever feel normal again. However, she is determined to make sure this does not happen to anyone else ever again.
The focus is rightly on the police force. This is the latest in a long line of recent revelations about the disgusting racism and misogyny that are utterly endemic within the police. But this does not take away the responsibility and failings of the school which must also be held accountable.The school let Child Q down. They wrongly suspected her of carrying cannabis and made grave errors in dealing with the situation. Ultimate responsibility for this lies with the school’s leadership. Disgracefully, the safeguarding lead has made crass self-pitying comments about the incident; “This is the hardest thing that we’ve had to go through and for anyone to think that the school might be complicit is very stressful”. Of course, when the national spotlight is turned onto a school, it can be distressing and everything should be done to ensure the matter is taken up while safeguarding the school community, but the leadership must be accountable to that community. This is one of the biggest failings of the modern education system; the role of the wider community in holding school leaderships to account has been consciously diminished by successive governments.
How staff at the school felt they could justify pulling a child out of her exams and allowing her to enter a room with police officers without her parents’ knowledge or an appropriate adult present is beyond belief. The school had no need to call the police, this was not needed for the suspicion of possession of cannabis, which should be treated as an issue of student welfare in schools, not a criminal one. The school failed the child and interfered with her right to an education and to be treated with dignity and care. The treatment Child Q faced amounts to assault by the police and a major safeguarding failing by the school. Despite this, the safeguarding report concluded that “the school was fully compliant with expected practise standards – clearly the standards need to change. It is also concerning that the report says the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel said that “the case was not notifiable and did not meet the criteria for a child safeguarding practice review”; how could police officers strip searching a child on school premises not warrant a review?
Trade union-led review needed
Just one month before the incident Child Q was similarly accused of ‘smelling of cannabis’. On this occasion she was described by the school staff as being “intoxicated”, although on contacting her mother, she explained that Child Q had been studying late the night before and it was this that accounted for her presentation. In the school’s record log, it was noted that Child Q and her mother were advised that “if this behavior continues or that if she is found with weed/drugs on her she will not be able to continue her place with (the school)”.
The reason the girl has been treated in this way is because she is Black, she was treated as an adult (adultification bias) and as a criminal and as such the school and police felt they could justify the way Child Q and others are treated. Adultification bias is a form of prejudice where children of minority groups, are treated as being more mature than they actually are, less innocent and less vulnerable than other children – and are primarily treated as a threat rather than as a child who needs support.
Not an isolated case
The Met Police have conducted nearly 10,000 strip searches on children in the last 5 years, including 2630 strip searches on children under 16 years of age. In Hackney alone, where Child Q was strip searched, in 2020/2021 25 children under the age of 18 were the subject of “further searches”. 19 were male and 18 handcuffed during the process. 15 of the children searched were Black, 2 were White, 6 Asian and 2 Arab or North African.
According to an article in the Guardian, the police force was also criticized for its disproportionate use of the tactic on black and ethnic minority suspects. Iin a 2019 report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, found that not all the searches were “warranted or properly justified”.
We have seen the report by the Tory government, which has rightly been criticised by Diane Abbott. She explains that “the Government believes there is no institutional racism, therefore their plan (The ‘Inclusive Britain’ action plan) has no real action; how can you have action for something which does not exist”.
We need real change
These statistics scream out just how much the police and education system needs to change. Despite what the report says, there is an urgency to tackle head on the institutional racism within schools and put an end to racial profiling of our children. There is a strong need for a movement, led by education workers and their unions and bringing together students and communities, to call for the immediate removal of police from schools. The news that students attending Child Q’s school took part in a student strike and protest demanding justice shows the potential that exists to build the fightback that’s needed. Socialist Alternative supports school students organising in whatever way they can – including through the establishment of school students’ unions.
All policies within schools should be reviewed and overseen by the trade unions, alongside the democratic input of school students, parents and wider communities. Such reviews should include proper Equality Impact Assessments which must be mandatory.
This case is an extreme expression of a wider, worrying trend within schools. Particularly in academies serving disadvantaged and ethnically diverse communities, there has been a proliferation of ‘ultra-strict’ behaviour policies. These are often based on harsh zero-tolerance approaches, regular use of isolation as punishment and high numbers of permanent exclusions. The lack of democratic oversight that exists for schools once they are taken out of local authority control contributes to this, including by allowing the whims of individual senior managers to exert much greater control.
What’s more, such policies are all too often being paired with the regular involvement of the police in matters of school discipline. Some schools even have a permanently assigned ‘Safer Schools Officer’. But the role of the police in our society is not benign. Officers are not stationed in schools to simply ‘support teachers’. The police is an institution whose ultimate role in society is to protect the powerful and uphold the systems of exploitation and oppression upon which capitalism is based. Criminalising children and exposing them to the institutionally anti-working class, oppressive justice system can only undermine their ability to learn and contribute to the disadvantages that many young people will go on to experience throughout their lives. The behaviour of students in school should be dealt with by education professionals working supportively with students and their parents.
Students not criminals
Some school policies currently specify that it is not necessary to gain parental consent before conducting invasive searches of children. This leaves more young people vulnerable to such treatment and undermines the principles of working with parents to safeguard children. This must be brought to an end. There can be NO circumstance in which a young person should be strip searched in school. The vast majority of teachers are utterly appalled by this case. We need to use our collective power to fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and to support trade union members who stand up to and defy managers who seek to enforce harmful practices. In the very powerful words of Child Q, “Things need to change with all organisations involved, even I can see that”.