Everyone’s Invited: what has been the sexual abuse website’s impact on the criminal law?
30 Jun 2023
Three years since Everyone’s Invited was established, Peter Csemiczky traces the school sexual abuse website’s development, and analyses its criminal justice impact.
Three years ago, a social movement was born that would come to dominate the media’s coverage of – and the public discourse about – sexual abuse in the UK.
University graduate Soma Sara created Everyone’s Invited in June 2020 as an Instagram account for sharing personal experiences of sexual abuse suffered by young women.
The social media account proved so popular that Ms Sara set up dedicated website on which anyone could anonymously submit examples of the ‘rape culture’ she said was gripping British education.
Established in the aftermath of ‘MeToo’ movement, Everyone’s Invited captured the zeitgeist. The media filled with accounts of abusive sexual behaviour apparently perpetrated by male pupils at some of the UK’s best-known schools.
Many of these testimonies were, on their face, clear allegations of criminality. But what has been the impact of Everyone’s Invited on the criminal law? Has it caused any meaningful legal shift? How has the criminal justice system answered the important questions Everyone’s Invited movement posed?
A mission to testify
The Everyone’s Invited school sexual abuse website started as a simple online platform to which anyone could anonymously upload their own stories of sexual violence. While the site requested no individual be named, anyone who submitted a story was asked to identify their school, and that attended by their alleged abuser.
The site’s usage skyrocketed after the kidnap and murder, by a serving police officer, of Sarah Everard in March 2021. From 5,000 testimonies at the start of March, the site had over 16,000 accounts by the end of July of that year.
A year later over and over 50,000 stories of sexual violence and harassment at schools (and some other educational establishments) featured on the website.
The fact that anyone could upload a testimony; that they could do so anonymously; and that no one’s account would be tested or questioned meant the site was clearly vulnerable to bad actors and fraudulent accounts.
But Everyone’s Invited never claimed to be a journalistic enterprise. Indeed, one can argue that the absence of journalistic checks or safeguards helped enable people who would otherwise have remained silent to tell the truth.
An analysis by Schools Week in March 2021 found that private, fee-paying schools were significantly over-represented on the site. They were eight times more likely to be mentioned than state schools.
Media coverage focussed on these public schools, which included some of the best-known in the country. Dulwich College, Westminster, Eton College, St. Paul’s, Highgate, and Latymer Upper were all named as schools at which at which abusive boys studied.
Some headteachers took umbrage at shouldering what they felt was a ‘disproportionate amount of blame’. Sara Soma explained that some schools were ‘really angry’ and were ‘basically only caring about their reputation rather that addressing this as a pervasive problem in the school’.
Schools take action
In late March 2021 Everyone’s Invited changed its format so that it was no longer possible to match any one testimony to a particular school.
But if the decision to remove a school’s name from an allegation was like shutting a stable door then the horse had not just bolted, it had run round the track twice and was already back in the paddock.
March 2021 was a bonanza for media reporting of sexual assault allegations at UK schools.
The fact that the allegations mentioned no names, and that they were generally unspecific, meant there was no threat of libel. Absent that, there was no obligation to independently establish the veracity of any claim.
Some of the resulting headlines were extremely lurid. ‘Dulwich College turns boys into sexual abusers, former pupil claims’ being one example.
If some schools complained privately, others appeared to take the accusations on the chin, and tried to do something about the issue.
Westminster School commissioned Fiona Scolding KC to investigate the allegations against its pupils. When she delivered her report a year later it made 44 recommendations for remedial action. These included overhauling the school’s sex education curriculum to put more emphasis on how to create healthy relationships, introducing a new behavioural code of conduct, and encouraging more teaching on gender stereotypes.
Highgate School appointed former Appeal Court judge, the Rt Hon Dame Anne Rafferty to lead the independent review into the issues raised by Everyone’s Invited testimonies.
As the media’s coverage of Everyone’s Invited grew, so too did the clamour for action. Robert Halfon MP, then chair of the Education Select Committee, demanded an enquiry.
‘What has allegedly been going on in some of our country’s distinguished schools is appalling’, he wrote in a column for the Telegraph. ‘It seems almost as if a Lord of the Flies culture has engulfed respected private education institutions and spread to some state schools too.’
On 31st March 2021 the Department for Education announced that school inspectorate Ofsted would conduct an independent review of the issues raised by the site. This review would attempt to establish the extent of the problem in both the independent and state school sectors, and to learn ‘whether the current inspection regimes in both state and private schools are strong enough to address concerns’.
Policing-wise, two important things happened.
Firstly, the nationwide policing initiative Operation Hydrant, which had been established to investigate ‘non-recent’ child sexual abuse, was asked to co-ordinate the police response to Everyone’s Invited.
Secondly (and in parallel to the above), the Met announced that it would investigate whether any potential victim who had written on Everyone’s Invited could be encouraged to report a crime.
Dept Supt Laremore led the Met police media push. ‘It is deeply concerning to see the number of accounts published on this website, many of which appear to relate to previous or current experiences within educational settings in London and across the country’, she told the BBC.
‘I think we’re still looking into the exact scope of how wide this is spread but certainly I know there’s already over 100 schools cited on the website’, she told Radio 4’s Today programme, adding: ‘the private school element is a factor especially for us in the Met’.
Ofsted’s investigation was swift. On 10th June 2021 – just over two months after its review was announced – the agency released its ‘rapid review’ report.
Ofsted inspectors had visited 32 state and private schools ‘including a number of visits to schools named on the Everyone’s Invited website’. They spoke to over 900 children and young people, as well as various education leaders including headteachers, in its attempt to get the bottom of the issues raised.
The report’s headline finding was that children and young people considered sexual harassment to have become ‘normalised’ in UK schools and colleges.
However, when it came to quantifying this problem Ofsted admitted it struggled to find reliable data beyond that which it had been told by students. The report identified potential sources of empirical data on this issue but pointed out that each had limitations.
As the report noted: ‘It is hard to get an accurate picture of the scale and nature of sexual harassment and violence between children and young people in schools and colleges as there is no centralised data collection of incidents and crime statistics are not published with a level of analysis to shed any light on this.’
Operation Hydrant also experienced difficulties assessing the allegations on the Everyone’s Invited site. Its annual report for 2021 told how delivering work around Everyone’s Invited ‘involved some challenges for the Analysis and Research team’.
Among these challenges, it said, was the ‘classification of offences, which in some cases was sometimes subjective to the reader of the testimony. For example, there were differing interpretations of what ‘sexualised behaviour’ encompassed.’
But Operation Hydrant was nonetheless bullish about its achievements. It had created a weekly information ‘dashboard’ which it circulated to police forces, and which had ‘informed decision making and activity at both a tactical and strategic level’. This had ‘made a significant contribution to understanding the nature of the emerging issue, the impact on policing and resources, and informing the response of policing and key partners.’
If this was a policing success, then the same is harder to say of the Met’s investigation.
In May 2023 the force revealed in response to a Freedom of Information request by this firm that it had not charged a single person with any offence as a result of testimonies made on the Everyone’s Invited site.
Why so little police action to Everyone’s Invited allegations?
At the time of writing, the Everyone’s Invited website’s ’Find Help’ page contains links to 34 different organisations able to offer advice and practical assistance to the victims of sexual harassment and abuse. None of these organisations are the police.
This omission seems unlikely to be an accidental oversight (particularly since media reports have previously claimed that the Everyone’s Invited site does link directly to the police).
What is happening here? The key is likely to lie in a mission statement on the Everyone’s Invited ‘About Us‘ page: ‘Everyone’s Invited is a safe place for survivors to share their stories completely anonymously’, it reads.
‘The act of sharing their story with Everyone’s Invited allows many survivors a sense of relief, catharsis, empowerment, and gives them a feeling of community and hope.’
Absent from this statement is the word ‘justice’.
What is the true legacy of Everyone’s Invited?
The accounts reported to Everyone’s Invited describe of a wide range of behaviour. Some are of misogyny or sexual harassment which, whilst reprehensible, may not be criminal in nature.
Other allegations (for example of harassment without a threat of violence) may be time-barred meaning they can no longer be pursued through the criminal justice system.
It may also be the case that there are ongoing criminal investigations linked to Everyone’s Invited that have not yet reached a conclusion. If so, this does a disservice to everyone – complainants, witnesses and suspects – all of whom may have put their lives on hold until a charging decision is made.
However, the fact that no criminal charges appear to have resulted from Everyone’s Invited allegations does not necessarily diminish the site’s importance. In fact, considering its stated raison d’etre, it may be a mistake to judge the site on these terms.
What the absence of charges does illustrate is the disconnect that exists between the public’s desire to expose, address, educate and prevent unacceptable sexual behaviour; and the difficulties faced by those investigating and prosecuting these types of allegations.
Practically speaking, it is easy to make anonymous and unevidenced claim of sexual assaults on a website. Far harder to build a robust criminal case that meets the proper charging criteria and stands a reasonable chance of achieving a conviction.
Everyone’s Invited shone a vital light on the misogynistic culture prevalent in our education system. Three years on from the site’s establishment, society and the criminal justice system is still grappling with how best to tackle sexual misconduct by, and on, young people.