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School dismissed teacher-abuse fear
School staff missed repeated opportunities to blow the whistle on inappropriate conduct between teacher Jeremy Forrest and a teenage schoolgirl before he abducted her, a damning review has found.
Concerns raised by children about the growing closeness between married maths teacher Forrest and his pupil were "repeatedly dismissed".
Instead, Bishop Bell C of E School in Eastbourne, East Sussex, adopted a "default position" of "intuitively supporting a colleague" in the face of evidence that he might be an abuser.
It was also revealed that the girl, who cannot be named, was never spoken to by school staff in a supportive way, according to the serious case review by the East Sussex Local Safeguarding Children Board.
And the school's failure to involve the girl's mother in responding to events was another "cause for concern" and she was "denied the opportunity to assist her daughter", the report said.
Forrest, 31, was jailed for five-and-a-half years for child abduction and five charges of sexual activity with a child at Lewes Crown Court in June.
The case of Forrest and the girl, referred to in the report as Child G, attracted worldwide attention after he abducted her to France and they spent seven days on the run.
They dyed their hair, gave themselves false names on CVs to try to get work, and Forrest threw his mobile phone into the English Channel to prevent its signal betraying their whereabouts.
The report reserves particular criticism for the school, with some staff failing to recognise the child protection implications in some events and believing Forrest was the victim.
"All the specialist and senior staff in the school seem to have reconstructed the events into misconduct by Child G," the report noted.
"Mr K (Forrest) became the victim. Even when reporting to this review after Mr K's imprisonment, there was evidence of some school staff failing to recognise the child protection implications in some of the earlier events."
Evidence of an inappropriate relationship between Forrest and the girl first surfaced during a school trip to the United States in February 2012.
Two pupils approached the head of the upper school and reported rumours that the girl had a "crush" on Forrest since the trip.
Forrest denied any inappropriate relationship to senior staff and no other agency was involved, the report said.
Some information was given to the girl's mother, who was said to be satisfied with the way the school dealt with it.
The report said: "It is striking that it was, overwhelmingly, young people who raised concerns about this situation.
"Those concerns were repeatedly dismissed. Serious case reviews have often commented on agencies' failures to hear the 'voice of the child' but this has generally been a reference to the abused child.
"Here the very nature of the abuse, grooming and exploitation, made it unlikely that the victim would raise concerns.
"Yet agencies, and particularly the school, were too ready to dismiss the reports received from other children.
"That should lead those agencies to reconsider how they respond, individually and together, to concerns raised by young people."
The school showed a "reluctance to acknowledge the increasing evidence of an improper relationship", the report went on.
With evidence mounting, the school, referred to as School D, did not adhere to any process for identifying, analysing and responding to the emerging concerns.
The report said: "This review has identified serious concerns about School D's management of the situation involving (Forrest) and (the girl).
"Over a period of some seven months, there were a number of missed opportunities by school staff to recognise or acknowledge there was a significant problem arising from (Forrest's) conduct, and that child protection intervention was necessary."
A rumour that Forrest and the girl had been seen holding hands was a "very significant piece of evidence" which should have alerted the school authorities to child protection issues.
"(Forrest) was advised about 'professional boundaries', implying that in some way he had breached or was in danger of breaching those boundaries," it added.
"Yet the response to the situation appears to have been determined entirely from the perspective of a teacher at risk of false allegations.
"This sort of 'fixed thinking' is repeatedly identified as a factor in situations which lead to serious case reviews (SCRs)."
For the fifth time, on May 22 last year, school staff were alerted by other students again to evidence of an improper relationship between the pair.
Three specific comments between them on Twitter included "marriage falling apart", "separate rooms" and "miss you", it was revealed to school staff.
But instead of Forrest becoming the focus of investigation, the girl was, with her Twitter account accessed and nothing of concern being noted.
The report said: "The three quotes detailed above, particularly 'miss you', unequivocally indicate an inappropriate relationship."
It added: "Even without the context of the previous concerns, the school's response to this evidence of conduct which clearly flouted professional boundaries was subdued."
The report's authors said there appeared to have been a "complacency" about such unprofessional conduct by a member of staff.
One step the school did take was to refer the girl to a "Safe Around Sex workshop". It was said by the deputy head to have been because of "wider welfare concerns" about her rather than rumours of her "crush" on Forrest.
But the report's authors were critical of the decision. "It is difficult to understand the thinking which prompted this referral," they said.
"The school has reported that (the girl) fitted a 'profile' of young women who had become pregnant soon after leaving school, in that she was vulnerable, quiet and naive.
"She was certainly vulnerable but this response continued to locate any continuing problem with (the girl) rather than the teacher who was abusing her."
The sixth suggestion of a relationship between the pair came from two former pupils who visited the school to disclose their concerns, including that Forrest had picked the girl up after work experience.
Yet the report said staff, including the headteacher, appeared to have been "oblivious to the possibility" that the girl was being abused by Forrest.
Another child refused to be taught by Forrest, calling him a "pervert", the report went on. Despite wider rumours of Forrest's behaviour circulating, that knowledge did not lead to any action.
The report also highlighted serious concerns about the way information was recorded, stored, retrieved and provided to the authors by the school.
There was no contemporaneous recording of any of the emerging concerns, despite schools having comprehensive guidance by the local authority.
The review also uncovered some weaknesses in routine child protection work in the case. Initial inquiries by police should have been carried out by the child protection team, it said.
A raft of recommendations were made for professionals, including the school, East Sussex Children's Services and Sussex Police.
The school was asked to update its safeguarding policy, undertake an independent and bi-annual file audit of their child protection cases, and be reminded of the importance of maintaining accurate written records.
Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson has written to East Sussex County Council with his concerns over the failures in safeguarding at the school.
In his letter, Mr Timpson said it was "an abrogation of leadership and responsibility" for the school to fail to protect the vulnerable child.
He wrote: "For a school so comprehensively to fail to protect a vulnerable teenager from a manipulative adult, who has been placed by the school in a position of trust, is an abrogation of leadership and responsibility which had terrible consequences for this child and the family.
"The SCR reveals systemic flaws in child protection at the school, amid a culture which repeatedly ignored inappropriate adult behaviour, while blaming the child and offering unsuitable advice to her.
"The way that school leaders dismissed warnings made by young people about an improper relationship, and the failure to provide any effective support to the child, is inexcusable.
"I concur with the conclusion of the SCR author that 'some of the failings identified in this SCR are both significant and systemic'; a finding substantially at odds with the conclusions of a 'safeguarding review' of the school led by your own officials earlier this year.
"I am aware that the school has begun to implement changes to tackle the failures identified in the serious case review. It is important that students and parents can be confident that those failures have been addressed and all necessary action taken."
Terry Boatwright, executive headteacher at Bishop Bell C of E School, apologised for the failings and said they have been working hard to address the issues.
He admitted that the school "did not act with the correct level of investigative rigour, administrative efficiency and consideration for the concerns" raised by students.
Mr Boatwright said: "We are extremely sorry for these previous failings, particularly for the impact they have had on the victim, her family and friends, school students, parents and all our staff.
"We are also grateful to the wider school community for their continued support and understanding during this difficult time.
"Over the last 15 months we have been working hard to address the specific areas of concern highlighted by the SCR and the two independent external reviews instigated by the school.
"As a result, many of the recommendations from the SCR have already been implemented, with advanced plans and arrangements in place to address the remainder.
"All relevant policies and procedures were updated and substantially revised in May 2013, taking account of the critical need to listen and respond more robustly to any concerns voiced by students.
"A new designated child protection teacher now oversees the management of the new and completely restructured safeguarding systems in the school.
"These include new record-keeping and reporting protocols and clearly defined triggers for the involvement of senior management, East Sussex County Council, the police and other partner agencies as appropriate.
"In 2012 there is no doubt that, in this case, the school did not act with the correct level of investigative rigour, administrative efficiency and consideration for the concerns being raised by students.
"However, safeguarding at the school has changed markedly in the intervening period. Additionally, given the learning which has taken place, the policies and procedures now in place are probably amongst the most rigorous and comprehensive safeguarding frameworks in the country."
The chair of the East Sussex Local Safeguarding Children Board, Cathie Pattison, said: "I felt very strongly there needed to be a multi-agency review of this case.
"It was a serious case of abuse of a young person who was abducted from her family and I was sure there would be learning not just for the agencies directly involved but also more widely. I was also aware that the young person's family wanted a thorough review.
"The report shows opportunities were missed to intervene sooner and more robustly.
"We need to do more to make sure established safeguarding procedures are followed correctly in schools, that records are kept when safeguarding concerns are raised, that young people are listened to and that families are involved when issues arise."
East Sussex County Council accepted some weaknesses were found but has acted to address the concerns raised in the review.
Ged Rowney, the council's interim director of children's services, said: "This was a serious case of sexual exploitation of a young person/child who was abducted from her family by a professional she should have been able to trust, and who is now a convicted sex offender as a result.
"Our priority from the outset was, and remains, the welfare of the young person concerned. We were pleased the LSCB decided to hold a serious case review and that it has examined the role of all the agencies involved so closely.
"We are confident we have the right safeguarding procedures and partnerships in place, but we accept the review's findings that there were some weaknesses in how some processes were followed.
"We have not waited for the publication of this report but have taken action already to address the recommendations the review made for us."
Detective Superintendent Paul Furnell, of Sussex Police, said: "We have noted the recommendations for police in the report, which are for our Protecting Vulnerable People branch to perform an audit in the next six months to establish if child protection team officers generally carry out the first response to allegations made against people working with children. This will enable a decision to be made whether to amend the child protection policy.
"Also to carry out a review in the next six months into the requirement and capability for a child protection team detective sergeant to attend all strategy discussions for allegations made against people working with children. These had been identified in our own review of the case."