Safeguarding children: what schools need to know to be ‘appropriate adults’

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One of the most notable innovations in the updated Child Safeguarding in Education (KCSIE) guidelines, which go into effect in September, is a reminder to schools that students must have an “appropriate adult” if they are questioned by police.

This addition was probably prompted by the recommendations in Review of Child Protection Practiceconducted by the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership.

This is something schools should be looking at with great interest now. But what exactly is a “reasonable adult”, what do they do and how do they navigate to balance a student’s rights and police powers?

Child Protection: What Schools Need to Know About “Appropriate Adults”.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), police must ensure that an “appropriate adult” is present to provide assistance when detaining or volunteering to question anyone who:

  • is under the age of 18, or
  • they have reason to believe they are a “vulnerable” person.

In the case of children, this role is usually performed by a parent or family member, but may also be someone provided by the local authority or a professional known to the child.

Given this and the nature of the relationships teachers and school leaders have with young people, they are often well placed to fulfill this role in a positive and supportive manner.

For practical reasons (e.g. time of day or day of the week), family members usually assume the role when young people are apprehended and formally questioned at the police station, and school staff most often assume this role for voluntary questioning on school grounds.

However, there is nothing to prevent school staff from supporting this manner in a more formal interview setting, and some parents may request this support from trusted teachers or leaders with whom they have developed a relationship over a number of years.

In all cases, the police have a responsibility to ensure the person knows someone needs to be present and to facilitate this.

At a police station, the responsible person is usually the constable and, in the case of voluntary interrogations conducted elsewhere, the investigating officer. In all cases, the parent or legal guardian is the first person offered or contacted to fill the role.

However, it is also important for the interviewee to know that they do not have to accept anyone they are not comfortable with, and therefore those asked to play the role should check that the young person is OK with this ( or they can request someone they are more comfortable with).

interpretation of the law

It’s also worth noting that the law makes no distinction between young people with or without additional needs, and its definition of ‘vulnerable’ is quite different from what we would recognize in education.

However, in this context, by ensuring that all children are matched with an ‘appropriate adult’, young people are effectively treated as ‘vulnerable’ simply because of their age/immaturity.

However, it is important to recognize that a relatively high proportion of young people (whether or not with a diagnosed special educational needs or disability) will find it very difficult to understand and respond appropriately in such a stressful and challenging context without significant difficulty and need support .

The PACE guide recognizes this and explains that for suitable adults it may be better to be professionals with training and experience who support the person’s needs on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a teacher) than a family relationship.

For these young people, the presence of someone from school who knows them can be very reassuring and more supportive of their needs.

Regardless of whether the person is a child and/or vulnerable, the role of the ‘appropriate adult’ is the same – ensuring that the rights, entitlements and needs of the person are met. These likely include:

  • Assisting/advising the individual when asked to provide information, answer questions, etc.
  • Ensuring that the police act correctly and fairly.
  • Help the person to communicate clearly and be understood (while respecting and supporting their right to silence if they wish).
  • Help the person understand and use their rights.

On the last point, it is important to note that the ‘appropriate adult’ cannot provide legal advice and that is what the person does deliberately of your rights does not constitute advice on how/when to exercise those rights.

The police must explain the person’s legal rights and inform them in writing (an ‘easy to read’ version is available for those who have difficulty with complex texts).

Although the ‘appropriate adult’ does not need to know these rights in advance, an important aspect of the role is ensuring that the person understands them and acts accordingly.

For example, detainees/interrogators may not understand that they have the right to request an attorney or legal representative at any interrogation. Likewise, they may not fully understand their right to remain silent and may benefit from being reminded of it.

key aspects of the role

Beyond this reiteration/clarification of rights, there are important practical ways in which “appropriate adults” can support:

  • Private conversations can be held at any time between the young person and his “suitable adult”. This can help bring calm and clarity at key moments.
  • Make sure the young person understands what is being asked of them and is able to give the answers they mean even if they cannot express things clearly without support.
  • Ask the police to slow down, stop interrupting, remain seated/avoid intimidation (whether intentional or not) and not pressurize the young person. Request breaks approximately every hour.
  • Make comments for the interview recording. For example, if you feel the recording doesn’t capture the “atmosphere” or if you don’t think the person can handle the interview.
  • Demonstrate to the police how effectively the young person’s physical and mental well-being is being supported (temperature, eating, drinking, clothing, washing facilities, religious practice) and whether their rights have been respected (legal representation, translation, etc.).
  • Speak to the custody officer if you have concerns about the process. They will be police officers but will not be directly involved in the investigation in question. Their job is to ensure the proper application of the law and all relevant procedures in all areas, and they can advise you on how the process should work.

For more comprehensive advice, the National Appropriate Adult Network has an independent charity that offers advice and resources.

Tom Goodenough, a former headmaster, is Education Manager for the Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit

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