New advice for dealing with ‘Sexting incidents’ from the National Police Chiefs Council

30 Nov 2016 Becca Cawthorne

A guest blog by Alan Earl, police officer seconded to the UK Safer Internet Centre, looking at what this new approach means for schools.

This month the body of very senior rank police officers known as the National Police Chiefs Council have issued advice to all English and Welsh forces on the approach that should be taken when dealing with a ‘Sexting’ incident.

What is sexting?

A 2016 NSPCC and Office of the Children’s Commissioner England study found that a significant minority of young people had sent a sexual image to someone else. In many cases the exchange of intimate images between young people stays between them. There are of course times when the images are spread further and this is where problems occur. Even though only a small proportion of incidents will find their way to an adult, it is often a school teacher or member of staff that is told. Schools are then tasked with dealing with the fall-out.

Schools across the country may have slightly different ways of dealing with a Sexting incident. This has been recognised along with the need to ensure a structured ‘child centred’ approach to the issue. In acceptance of this, the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) have issued important guidance for schools about responding to incidents of sexting. The advice was issued in conjunction with the recently released NPCC advice.

Indecent images of a child

Sexting images are classified as indecent images of a child when the subject is under 18 years of age. This was initially described by the Protection of Children Act 1978; an act focused on targeting adults who would create or gather these images. There was no expectation in 1978 that 38 years later children would be sexually experimenting by sending their self-generated sexual images out into the ether via a mobile electronic device.  Sentences for those making, distributing or possessing these images can attract a prison sentence of up to 10 years and the possibility of being placed on the sex offenders register.

Given the harsh penalties for possession of images it is no surprise that schools have been reluctant to report issues to the police for fear of their students being criminalised.

It has long been accepted by the policing family via the Crown Prosecution Service and the NPCC that there would be no criminalisation of children (in straightforward cases). In fact the focus has always been on treating the children involved as victims in the first instance.

NPCC Guidance

In an effort to provide consistency when police officers or staff have an incident reported to them the NPCC have now issued guidance to all of the English and Welsh forces. The advice can be found here and in the following paragraphs I will try and pull out the salient points for schools.

It is important however to stress that, for schools, the important document is the UKCCIS advice which takes into account the police approach and was written in parallel. Please note Sexting images are now described within policing circles as ‘Youth produced sexual images’ as there is some confusion amongst parents and children about the term ‘Sexting’.   

A proportionate approach.

On initial report police will record the incident as a crime. This has not changed and there is still a requirement under Home Office Counting Rules for the police to record all crimes. Please be clear that recording a crime does not mean a criminal record for anyone at this stage.

Concerns over a later possible disclosure of the incident have led to the creation of Outcome 21. “This outcome code allows the police to record a crime as having happened but for no formal criminal justice action to be taken as it is not considered to be in the public interest to do so”. Hopefully this removes the fear that schools may have on later impact.

Establishing the facts

The first approach by a police officer or staff member must be to establish the facts. This will include assessing whether there are any aggravating factors. Examples could be adult involvement in the background, known other vulnerabilities, level of coercion, blackmail, previous incidents and any other factors at play. If there are then the police will take control of the incident and initiate in a lot of cases a strategy meeting with the school and other agencies. If there are no aggravating factors the police will support the victims and assist the school where possible.  

In a straightforward incident where the police will not be taking any action and supporting the victim(s) it is important parents and school understand the following about disclosure.

Non-conviction information can only be included on an enhanced criminal record check and it is for a Chief Officer to consider what information should be included based on relevance. The discretion on whether to disclose non-conviction information rests with each chief constable managing the process. Therefore, no guarantee can or should be provided that this information would not be released.

Although no guarantee can be provided it will be a very small number of unusual cases that may lead to a further disclosure. The police are now equipped with a statement which they can issue to schools and parents if the issue is escalated to them.

Disposal of the image(s)

In the case of a straightforward ‘sexting incident’ there still remains the question of disposal/deletion of the image(s). If the police have seized the phone it will not be returned.  There will be many scenarios around this. After initial questioning and assessment the police may make a judgement not to seize the phone of the victim. The question of the images within the device or phone(s) still remains.

There is a barrier to the police deleting images as there can never be a guarantee that they are gone from the phone. Returning it to the owner with images still on the device (whether or not unknown to the police) may be viewed as the police distributing indecent images. At this point an opportunity arises for the school to utilise their powers of search/deletion under the Education Act (1996) revisions of 2012. Please see the UKCCIS advice around this.  If an image reached the internet there may be opportunity for the police to enter the image on the CAID (Child Abuse Image Database) in order to prevent its further recirculation (through Hi Tech Crime Units).

As can be appreciated these are briefing notes for guidance only. Each case will have a different context and in all cases victims will be dependent on the professional judgement of the adults involved. Training for DSOs and the police family in the future will be important to further sketch the right approaches.

A nude selfie has the power of scalability, durability and audience once it hits the internet. It can have a massive impact on those for whom it has gone wrong. Schools often deal with these incidents in a compassionate and common sense way.

It is hoped the UKCCIS advice coupled with knowledge on how they expect the legal system and police to deal with such incidents will be useful in maintaining that practical approach and in putting the child at the very centre of the process to provide the right support.   

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