What is peer-on-peer abuse?

There are four key definitions of peer-on-peer abuse:

  • Domestic abuse – young people who experience physical, emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse, and coercive control, in their intimate relationships, as well as family relationships.
  • Child sexual exploitation – those under the age of 18 who are sexually abused in the context of exploitative relationships, contexts and situations, by a person of any age, including another young person.
  • Serious youth violence – any offence of most serious violence or weapon-enabled crime, where the victim is aged 19 or younger, e.g. wounding with intent, rape, murder and grievous bodily harm.
  • Harmful sexual behaviour – young people displaying sexual behaviours that are outside of developmentally ‘normative’ parameters.
    For the purpose of this guidance, the term ‘child’ refers to any young person under 18 years old. 

Peer-on-peer abuse: the facts

  • Rates of violence are higher for girls in England than in any other country.
  • 1 in 3 girls have experienced sexual violence from a partner before they turn 18 years old.
  • 4 in 10 teenage girls have experienced sexual coercion when they have been aged between 13 and 17 years old.
  • One in five girls in England have suffered physical violence from their boyfriend.
  • 48 percent of girls have experienced instances of emotional and online abuse from their partners.
  • Young people have reported that physical, sexual and emotional abusing, as well as being abused by their peers, is a means of survival in gang affected neighbourhoods.
  • Two thirds of contact sexual abuse experienced by children under the age of 17 was perpetrated by someone under 18 years old.
  • Almost a third of girls aged between 16 and 18 years old have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching in UK schools.

Who does it affect?

  • Girls and young women are more frequently identified as those who are abused by their peers, reporting it as having a negative impact on their lives.
  • Boys and young men are more likely to be identified as abusers, and less likely to say that partner abuse impacts them negatively.
  • Peer-on-peer abuse tends to be experienced by children aged 10 and upwards, with those abusing them being slightly older; however, cases of eight year olds being abused, and inflicting abuse, have been reported.
  • Children with intra-familial abuse in their histories, or those living with domestic abuse, are more vulnerable to peer-on-peer abuse.
  • Children in care, or those that have experienced bereavement, are more at risk of abusing, or being abused by, their peers.
  • Black and minority ethnic children are often under-identified as victims, and are over-identified as perpetrators instead.

What are the impacts of abuse on a child?

Peer-on-peer abuse can manifest itself and impact a child in many ways, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Causing physical injuries
  • Encouraging drug and alcohol abuse
  • Going missing/running away
  • Compromising their sexual health
  • Committing criminal offences
  • Acting disengaged from school
  • Affecting their mental health and emotional wellbeing

How do you identify abuse?

To an extent, there is no clear boundary between incidents that should be regarded as peer-on-peer abuse and incidents that are more properly dealt with as bullying, sexual experimentation, etc. For this reason, a staff member’s professional judgement plays a vital role in the identification process.

It may be appropriate to regard a child’s behaviour as abusive if:

  • There is a large difference in power between the people involved.
  • The perpetrator has repeatedly tried to harm one or more people.
  • There are concerns about the intention of the alleged perpetrator.

If it is believed that the perpetrator intended to cause harm to the victim, this should be regarded as abuse even if severe harm was not actually caused.

What should you do after identifying abuse?

Any professional who feels that a child has abused another child should notify the designated safeguarding lead immediately, including if the incident of abuse takes place off the school premises, although any member can make a referral to a children’s social care.

If the concern indicates that a potential crime has taken place, or that with safeguarding implications, it may be necessary to call children’s social care or the police.

The concern should be recorded in the school’s child protection concerns record, along with any further details or outcomes and should be made in accordance with the referral threshold set by the Local Safeguarding Children Board.

After the concern has been recorded, a strategy discussion will be held with the relevant referring agency, and where necessary the police, youth offending service or sexually harmful behaviour team. This discussion will consider:

  • Whether the perpetrator poses a continuing risk to any child.
  • How to protect any child at immediate risk of significant harm.
  • Whether a section 47 enquiry should be made and how it should be handled.
  • What action should be taken in respect of the alleged perpetrator, such as arranging a risk management meeting.

A section 47 enquiry is initiated if a child is taken into police protection, is the subject of an emergency protection order, or there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.

It is not appropriate to initiate a section 47 enquiry unless the perpetrator is continuously at risk of causing harm.

Any action taken in respect of the perpetrator will be based on the risk they pose to other children and what actions can be taken to minimise this risk.

If the perpetrator is over 10 years old, consideration will be given to whether action under the criminal justice system is appropriate.

An assessment of the perpetrator’s needs will be carried out, taking into consideration:

  • The nature, extent and context of the abusive behaviour.
  • The child’s development, family and social circumstances.
  • Whether the child appears to pose a continuing risk, and who is likely to be at risk from him/her.

The parents/carers of all children involved will be informed of the incident and included in a strategy discussion about what will happen next. A risk assessment will be considered at this time in order to protect all parties involved, as well as arrangements for a supervision plan.

Any investigation will be led by the police or social care team, unless thresholds for these services are not met, in which case the school will undertake a thorough investigation.

What action do you take to support the victim?

During the strategy discussion it is important to consider what action is necessary to ensure the immediate safety of the victim, and what further enquiries are required to assess any further risk.

If the victim is still at risk of harm, a child protection conference may be arranged during the strategy discussion.

A child protection conference may conclude that the victim is not in need of a child protection plan, but may be in need of support to address any issues arising from the abuse, e.g. the school may need to provide a counselling service to help with the victim’s anxiety following an incident of abuse.

If the victim and perpetrator are members of the same family/household, before making any arrangements to return the perpetrator to the family/household, it is critical to ensure that the victim’s views have been heard and that they feel safe.

A supervision plan may be implemented, in order to ensure that the victim is suitably protected from the incident reoccurring; this is often achieved by ensuring the children involved in the incident are separated.

How can abuse be prevented?

 All pupils and members of staff have a responsibility to work together to ensure that abuse does not occur, or where it is found, action is taken.

In order for this to happen, ‘ground rules’ should be set during the pupil induction process, to ensure that pupils are aware of:

  • How they are expected to behave in accordance with the school’s Code of Conduct.
  • What constitutes as abuse.
  • How any incidents of abuse will be addressed by the school.
  • The importance of adhering to fundamental British values.

The school will minimise the risk of allegations against other pupils by providing the following:

  • PHSE as part of the curriculum
  • An effective system for pupils to raise concerns with staff
  • A robust risk assessments for pupils that are identified as posing a potential risk
  • Appropriate targeted work for pupils identified as being at a potential risk


What's next?

 Once an incident of peer-on-peer abuse has been reported, the pupil in question should be continuously monitored and their case reviewed on a regular basis.

It is important to keep in mind that a single incident of abuse does not indicate that a child is likely to abuse again, and that some children who abuse others have been abused themselves; however, this cannot be assumed in any particular case.

In the event of a case of abuse, the needs of the victim and the needs of the perpetrator must be considered separately.

More information regarding peer-on-peer abuse can be found in the DfE’s ‘Keeping children safe in education’ guidance document, and our 3-Minute Read.

Download our Child Protection Concerns Record, which provides more information about pupils inappropriately touching peers.

To access these resources for free, sign up for a no obligation free trial and download five free resources of your choice today. 

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