Safeguarding related work features in our profile and does not feature regularly in our blogs. However we feel it essential that we look at the issues surrounding a Deputy Head Teacher who was convicted of having sex with a 16 year old pupil.
This has been prepared by one of our team whose background incorporates a law degree and several related professional dimensions to his work.
Last week we happened across two news articles talking about
the trial of Stuart Kerner. Kerner is a deputy head teacher who was convicted
of having sex with a child, a girl of 16 years old. From the words used in the
court, it is strongly suggested that the girl made advances towards him, and
that he gave in to temptation. He
was given a non-custodial sentence for two counts of sexual activity with a
child by a person in a position of trust.
The question we ask here is, given the clear breach of the
law and the gravity of the situation, how was this allowed to happen? We will
examine the following areas:
law that governs this type of offence
prominent culture on blaming the victim
reduction of the perpetrator’s responsibility.
The law that governs this particular offence is the Sexual
Offences (Amendment) act 2000.
Section 3(1): “… it shall be an offence for a person aged 18 or over—
(a)to have sexual intercourse (whether vaginal or anal) with
a person under that age; or
(b)to engage in any other sexual activity with or directed
towards such a person,
if (in either case) he is in a position of trust in relation
to that person.”
The sentence for committing this offence – and the
punishment we therefore might reasonably expect Kerner to have received – is in
Section 3(4): “A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be
(a)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not
exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to
(b)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term
not exceeding five years, or to a fine, or to both.
Given that Kerner
was neither given a custodial sentence nor fined, there is a disparity between
the crime he has committed and the punishment received.
When somebody in a prominent position of responsibility has
sex with a 16-year-old girl, there is a clear safeguarding issue. It is very
unlikely that Kerner didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. This has not
been challenged in the articles, but is mentioned here to clarify the legal
position. Safeguarding training is a matter of course of all teachers now, and
this includes provisions on dealing with infatuations. Schools have designated
people with responsibility for safeguarding: Usually the head teacher if it’s a
primary school, and a member of the senior management team in a secondary
school. Kerner may have been in a position to have responsibility for
safeguarding; he might even have delivered the training himself. It is
inconceivable that he wouldn’t have known that the act of sex with a student
was wrong, the consequences of being discovered, and that the correct thing to
do would have been to report it as a safeguarding concern while discreetly
maintaining the dignity of all the people involved.
In this case, there has been a disturbing climate of blaming
the victim for the crime. Judge Joanna Greenberg QC said that the girl targeted
Kerner at an “emotionally vulnerable” time. She was also quoted to have
justified her decision by saying of the victim: “If grooming is the right word
to use, it was she who groomed you, [and] you gave in to temptation.” If
there is any truth in this, it does not diminish the fact that Kerner has
broken the law, and is indisputably the perpetrator of the crime. And yet, for
these reasons, he has a non-custodial sentence.
In Gaby Hinsliff’s article, she also says that the girl was
described by the judge as ‘“vulnerable and needy [with] a troubled home life”;
she had a history of attention-seeking behaviour, including pretending to have
been in an accident.’ She
compares this to similarly described girls who were singled out and targeted
for abuse by gangs of older men in Rotherham and Rochdale,
where in those cases the authorities were condemned for failing to aid those
girls from troubled backgrounds. This is a stark contrast to the suspended
sentence given to a deputy head who “fails to see something unhealthy in a
troubled 16-year-old’s adoration.” Why
was the perpetrator, in this case, not dealt with in a similar way?
Julie Bindel’s article highlights this situation in a
climate of victim-blaming culture that has been around since the 1980’s.
Arguably, the culture has been going on for even longer; Bindel’s examples
begin in the 80’s and end with her most recent example of Bob Bellew in April
2014. She appears to suggest that the culture of blaming the victim is nothing
new, and the fact that the case of Stuart Kerner was decided by a female judge
apparently did very little to break the trend.
Bindel has been criticised for this point by some of the
people who read the article, as the examples she gives are of rape, sexual
abuse and sexual assault – none of which are the specific offence that Kerner
has been convicted for. She is also criticised for failing to recognise that
the judge would have reached her decision by examining the facts of the case,
and deciding it on their merits. On the former criticism, we would argue that
in all of those situations, there is a culture of blaming the victim, and there
are many cases every year where this happens. On the latter, while we recognise
that the judge decided the case on its merits, we would still challenge the
disparity between the nature of the crime and the sentence received.
Responsibility for the Perpetrator
Judge Greenberg commented that it was an “emotionally
vulnerable” time for Stuart Kerner. The
emotional vulnerability she refers to is that Kerner’s wife had a difficult
pregnancy, and had miscarried on the week he had sex with his student.
This is a situation where the judgement was made on the
merits of the case, and Judge Greenberg is within her rights to reduce the
sentence on whatever grounds she wishes – paying heed to the possibility that
she may be challenged on it. Her
opinion gives rise to the notion that it was the student who groomed Kerner –
despite the fact that the student could not legally do so, and despite Kerner’s
breach of both the law and his responsibility as a teacher.
It is a solid fact that Stuart Kerner was in clear breach of
the law and his responsibility. It is less clear how Joanna Greenberg QC
arrived at the conclusion that his student had groomed him. While she
recognises that Kerner failed to act with the responsibly and restraint expect
of him, she has received harsh criticism for the sentence being too lenient,
and her judgement appears to be blaming the victim for the crime.
This highlights the wider issue of how the legal system
perceives and deals with cases such as this. Too often, there is an
ill-proportioned amount of blame and responsibility put on the victims of sex
crimes, and not enough consideration for the fact that the perpetrators have
broken the law. This creates an environment where the laws designed to protect
people from sex crimes can be creatively interpreted, poorly applied and in
some cases almost completely ignored. How, then, can it be said that the law
protects victims of such crimes?
The situation with Stuart Kerner ought to serve as a
cautionary tale. His student appears to have conducted herself in a manner that
was conducive to Kerner committing the crime – yet the law says that the
responsibility for her safety and his actions fall squarely on Kerner’s
shoulders. Having avoided a custodial sentence, and being on a suspended
sentence for eighteen months, we might wonder if anything has been learned from
this at all.
After some research, we have not been able to find any
information relating to how Bexleyheath
Academy – Kerner’s former
school – handled the matter. All we can say for certain at this time is that
Kerner was charged in August 2013 during the summer holidays.