What the Treatment of Child Q Says About the Safety of Black Children in the UK
In December 2020, a 15-year-old Black schoolgirl in Hackney, referred to as Child Q, was removed from her mock exam and strip-searched by two Metropolitan police officers after teachers suspected her of possession of cannabis. There was no Appropriate Adult present during the strip search, in which the girl was made to undress completely and expose her intimate body parts while menstruating, her mother was not informed, and the girl was made to go straight back into her exam after no drugs were found. She was not allowed to clean herself, and no one, not the four police officers who turned up nor school staff, asked how she was after the search.
A report conducted by City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP), which described the instance as “humiliating, traumatising and utterly shocking,” said that the strip search of Child Q should never have happened, and that racism was likely to have been the motivating factor in the decision to do so.
Following the incident, despite no drugs found on Child Q, rumours spread around the school that she was a drug dealer. Child Q is now reportedly in therapy and self-harming, and her family have described her as having changed completely after this incident, from a “happy-go-lucky girl to a timid recluse that hardly speaks.”
Child Q herself has made a statement, which reads: “Someone walked into the school, where I was supposed to feel safe, take me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period. I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up.”
This was not the first time that the school had wrongly implicated Child Q of this crime. just weeks before, school staff had accused her of possession of cannabis due to her seemingly intoxicated demeanour, which her mother says resulted from late-night study sessions by Child Q; and their acquaintance of another student who was excluded for drug possession. Despite the falseness of these allegations, the school threatened Child Q and her mother with expulsion.
Child Q and her family are now suing the school and the Metropolitan Police, who have apologised. Recent updates show that one of the teachers involved has been sacked, but the Metropolitan police officers, who were placed under investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in 2020, remain on full duties.
This incident has sparked outrage and is declared to be yet another example of institutional racism and misogyny within the Metropolitan Police force. The force, which currently awaits the appointment of a new Commissioner following the resignation of Cressida Dick, has been plagued with scandal in recent history, particularly relating to the treatment of ethnic minorities and women.
Most recently, on Tuesday the 22nd March, the police watchdog’s new report concluded that the Met Police’s approach to tackling corruption is fundamentally flawed, and earlier in the month the force rejected findings that it was “institutionally corrupt.”
Ms Dolcy, one of Child Q’s solicitors, added that: “the Metropolitan Police has seemed incapable of reform for generations, and it is difficult to say that it will ever change.”
So, what exactly happened here and why?
According to the CHSCP report, the school were initially “fully compliant with expected standards” when undertaking a search of Child Q’s coat, bag, scarf and shoes following concerns of the smell of cannabis on Child Q were raised.
However, the report states that the decision to strip search Child Q was not justified, nor aligned with the best interests of the schoolgirl, with another finding explaining that school staff wrongly submitted to the police on their arrival at the school and did not challenge the police on their intended actions. This meant that neither teachers nor police prioritised the safeguarding needs of Child Q here, and the strip search went against the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) act which states that intimate searches cannot be undertaken because nothing is found in the initial search.
The lack of consideration for the child’s welfare once again invokes questions, and this case has highlighted issues regarding the adultification bias against black children.
The adultification bias is where Black children are perceived as being older than they are, and thus held to adult standards. Much of this relates to the assumption by figures of authority, including teachers and police officers, that Black youth are more “streetwise” than their White peers and in less need of protection. In fact, studies on this phenomenon have found that this is the case for Black girls as young as five, who are perceived to be older and in less need of nurturing compared to their White counterparts, and similar conclusions have been found in investigations of the perception of Black and White boys.
This racial bias is perhaps the reason that neither the schoolteachers nor the police put the safety and wellbeing of Child Q first, and adultification was even cited in the CHSCP report. It may also be the reason that four police arrived at the school following the call made, a seemingly unnecessary number to handle allegations against a 15-year-old schoolchild suspected to be in possession of a Class B drug.
Extending this further, it may form part of the explanation of the disproportionate number of Black youth subject to “further searches” in the UK. In 2020/2021, in the Central East Basic Command Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which covers Hackney, 25 children were subject to these searches. Of these 25, 60% were Black children and 8% were White children. Of these strip searches, 88% were negative. By perceiving Black children as older and as adults, the Police are more likely to be inclined to undertake these “further searches”, and be less concerned about welfare and protection issues that may apply to White children of the same age.
The treatment of Child Q has also fuelled the debate against police officers in schools, with Black Lives Matter UK having stated that Child Q’s case is a clear example of why police should not be in schools.
Currently, more than 650 police officers are assigned to British schools, and Manchester recently increased the number of their ‘schools-based police officers’ (SBPOs). Although justified as a way to reduce crime and exploitation of young people, there have been serious concerns that SBPOs criminalise behavioural issues, particularly in areas of high deprivation where a large number of police are stationed, and that this facilitates a school-to-prison pipeline in the UK. Further, the treatment of Child Q seems to directly challenge some of the main declared benefits of police in schools, including creating improved relationships between children and police, and an improved sense of safety in and around schools.
Ultimately, Child Q’s case is multifaceted: it has led to the suffering of a young schoolgirl who has been left traumatised by the experience, it has fuelled anger towards the Metropolitan police, and it has provided worrying insight into the perception of Black youth in the UK and how this implicates their safety in schools.
Header Image Credit: Imperial College London