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Grooming the Institution: Is grooming preventable in schools?


A new research report commissioned by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Commission) has been released, which further examines grooming behaviours in institutional contexts.

“Grooming and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts” prepared by Professor Patrick O’Leary, Emma Koh and Andrew Dare (the Report) discusses the various definitions of “grooming”, the difficulty of identifying grooming behaviours before they escalate to abuse and how the physical environment and organisational culture of a school both contribute to the prevention of facilitation of grooming behaviours.

Grooming behaviours are clearly identifiable with the benefit of hindsight; however these behaviours are intrinsically difficult to identify as it is the motivation or intent behind certain behaviours that classifies them as “grooming”. This article will examine the Report’s findings on recognising grooming in its early stages and whether grooming can be prevented in schools.

The definition of grooming

The process by which a person interacts and engages with children and others in order to sexually abuse children has been called many things – grooming, sexual grooming, grooming behaviour and grooming techniques.

According to the Report, “grooming” has become an ‘umbrella term’ to refer to these various techniques, behaviours and activities. Interestingly, despite the wealth of research and case law surrounding grooming, a clear and nationally accepted definition of grooming is yet to be established.  This is probably a reflection of the fact that all states and territories have offences in relation to grooming but they are all different!

The Report comments on various academics’ previous definitions of grooming, pointing out limitations and failures to recognise the complexity of grooming. For example, an assumption that has been made is that grooming is a technique only used on children and not on other adults in an institutional setting; for example co-workers or organisational leadership. A newer definition is offered by the Report, which defines grooming as:

The use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques; with a vulnerable subject; in a range of inter-personal and social settings; in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour; with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting exposure (from the work of McAlinden, AM 2012, ‘Grooming’ and the sexual abuse of children: institutional, internet and familial dimensions, Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford).

While the acceptance of a nationally consistent definition of grooming would be beneficial for the identification of grooming and education of school staff, it is the understanding of contributing factors, indicators, and techniques of grooming that will enable schools to recognise and respond appropriately to grooming.

Recognising grooming in schools

The Report acknowledges that grooming and related techniques are difficult to explicitly define and identify and offers common examples of how grooming can be overlooked by individuals. One key error, per the Report, is an error in individual reasoning.

An example of an error in individual reasoning is ‘confirmation bias’. This is where a person processes their observations to confirm a pre-existing view. For example, a perpetrator has made an initially positive impression within the school and their colleagues have formed an opinion that they are supportive of children and trustworthy and have therefore overlooked later evidence that was inconsistent with that view.

It is important for schools to remain vigilant, as some who engage in grooming behaviour will not have past behaviour that negates them from passing pre-employment working with children screening. It is also critical that the school community is educated in recognising grooming techniques as they may be applied to adults, not just to students, for example reinforcing the idea to co-workers that they are safe and can be trusted to supervise children alone.

As the Report notes, there are both opportunistic and situational perpetrators who are reactive to the environment they are in and may not have exhibited grooming behaviour before. It is for this reason, we ask the question: is grooming preventable?

Grooming the institution: How your school’s culture can facilitate or prevent grooming

‘Grooming the institution’ or ‘institutional grooming’ is a term coined by McAlinden that involves perpetrators using features unique to the organisational setting to groom or abuse a child. The organisational setting includes both the school’s physical environment and the school’s organisational culture.

Physical environments that include areas that are isolated or difficult to supervise and buildings with a large number of exits, entrances, hallways or confined spaces, may increase the likelihood that grooming behaviours can be concealed and perpetrators can avoid supervision.

There are practical measures a school can take to address these physical environmental factors, such as ensuring that buildings are designed to improve natural surveillance, by ensuring all rooms have glass viewing panels or windows. However, the Report offers additional measures through the implementation of policies, procedures and values to ensure their culture is not facilitating grooming.

A school culture that facilitates grooming behaviours and abuse will often be one where there is:

  • a lack of knowledge by staff members of grooming techniques;
  • inadequate or inconsistent supervision of children;
  • an unwillingness to intervene in potentially inappropriate behaviours;
  • an absence of clear and formal rules/expectations of behaviour and/or an ad-hoc application of rules about staff and student relationships and boundaries;
  • unquestioning trust in the perpetrator by the school’s leadership; and
  • a lack of avenues to report concerns about inappropriate behaviour and a lack of communication about reporting channels.

On the other hand, a school’s culture can be one that actively prevents grooming behaviours and abuse by:

  • ensuring there are widely disseminated and visible policies setting out clear behavioural expectations;
  • providing avenues to help all members of the school community to report inappropriate behaviour;
  • giving specific staff members the authority to investigate allegations; and
  • consistently responding to concerns raised by staff members and others, by implementing the school’s policies.

James Field, Managing Director, CompliSpace’s article ‘Compliance with Current and Future Child Protection Laws – Embedding a Child Protection Culture.  How can this be achieved?’ is a valuable resource on how to create or improve upon, a culture of child safety at your school.

Is grooming preventable in schools?

Given the difficulty to rely solely on pre-employment screening for preventing grooming behaviour in a school and that identifying grooming techniques before abuse occurs is incredibly difficult due to the wide range of techniques and an inability to know the motivation or intent behind the behaviour, it would appear that no, grooming is not preventable in schools.

However, in the same way that slips and falls, critical incidents and bullying are not entirely preventable, schools need to focus on prevention techniques and strategies.

Prevention techniques and strategies such as clear, widely communicated and consistently enforced and implemented policies, frequent education on identifying grooming behaviours and risk indicators for staff and a strong child protection-focused culture are achievable for every school.

The key is implementing policies and procedures that reduce the opportunity for grooming behaviours and the likelihood that grooming will lead to abuse and increase the likelihood of detection and reporting.

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About the Author

Cara Novakovic

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