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Exclusive: More London children speak out about horrific police strip searches

Young people and youth workers will picket a Hackney police station over the ‘state-sanctioned sexual assault’ of Child Q. These are their stories

Trigger warning: Contains references to police violence, violence against women and girls, racism and sexual assault

Nandini Archer Anita Mureithi
18 March 2022, 2.20pm
Thousands of children in London have been forced to undergo strip searches in recent years
Illustration by Inge Snip. All rights reserved

“I got strip searched three times in one night,” says Ellis*. “The first time was enough, the second time was ‘whoa what are you lot doing?’ and the third time I gave up. What can I do?

“Imagine being 14, 15, 16. You’re in a room with grown men, four strangers, grown men telling you ‘take off your clothes, bend over and squat.’

“They’re watching you – and the funny thing is they are bantering, they’re laughing about.”

His testimony comes after an official investigation this week found that “racism was a likely factor” in the Metropolitan Police’s horrific strip search of a Hackney schoolgirl (known as Child Q) in 2020.

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The traumatic incident took place without the consent of the girl’s parents, after a teacher wrongly suspected that she was carrying drugs. Police had full knowledge that the child was on her period and forced her to remove her sanitary towel. Child Q, who was 15 at the time, said in a statement: “I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again... But I do know this can't happen to anyone, ever again.”

Thousands of children in London have been forced to undergo the humiliating and dehumanising practice in recent years, according to data released last month under Freedom of Information law.

Tom Kemp, a criminology researcher at Nottingham University, found 172,093 strip searches were carried out by the Met between 2016 and 2021. An alarming 9,088 of those were on children, including 2,360 under the age of 16. Some 35 were 12 years old or younger.

Kemp also noted that 57,733 (33.5%) of all strip searches in the past five years were on Black people, despite the fact that only 13% of Londoners are Black.

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Temi Mwale from 4Front, a youth organisation empowering young people and their communities to fight for justice, peace and freedom, said the practice was “state-sanctioned sexual assault”.

Louise King is the director of the Children's Rights Alliance for England. She called the figures “extremely concerning”, adding: “Being stripped [and] searched by someone in a position of power is inevitably a traumatic and distressing experience for a child, as the case of Child Q clearly demonstrates.”

Ellis, a member of 4Front, says he was also still a child – aged 17 – at the time of his strip search.

He told the officers he’d comply if he had an appropriate adult present – but they declined his request.

“I had a broken hand,” he said. “They tapped my cast. I said: ‘Why you tapping my cast for?’ [They replied:] ‘We don’t know if you’re hiding things in your hand.’”

He added: “This is a sexual assault…It will never happen to Edward that’s living in Sussex. It wouldn’t happen to Harry living somewhere else. It happens to us.”

He describes how police will drive past young Black boys like him on the street and shout: “You, yeah, you, come here, boy, what’s your name? Yeah you’re going up for a strippy.”

It will never happen to Edward that’s living in Sussex. It wouldn’t happen to Harry living somewhere else. It happens to us

A second young person from 4Front, Ade*, says: “I’d like to talk about a story in which a young boy under the age of 16 was on the street, going about his normal business… And around three men who he doesn’t know… [have] grabbed him, taken him in the back of their vehicle and they’ve gone to a location which is unfamiliar to him.

“They’ve told the boy he has to remove all of his clothes… And afterwards, they’ve just told him to go.”

Ade adds: “The reason I explained strip search in that terminology is because if that was a normal story that person would be deemed as a paedophile. He would be sent to court and tried under a judge and most likely sent to jail. Because that is illegal.”

Hackney as a hotbed for violence

Zarah Bei is a teacher and member of No More Exclusions – a coalition of people concerned with the racial disparity of school exclusions. She says that Child Q’s case is “horrific but sadly not shocking”.

“It’s not a case of a few bad apples, a few bad teachers or a few bad cops – these issues are systemic. This is the way Black working-class children are treated in schools.”

Emmanuel Onapa, who is campaigns manager for Hackney Account, a police stop and search monitoring group, agrees: “This case shows exactly how young Black youth are perceived – the adultification of young Black bodies – a recurring issue we’ve seen for years.”

Onapa points out that Hackney has a particularly troubled history when it comes to police violence: young Black men including Colin Roach and Rashan Charles have died at the hands of the police, while others have been beaten and spied on. “We are overpoliced and underprotected in general,” says Onapa, “and Hackney has a rich culture of Black working-class communities – and with that obviously comes over police presence in our community, including in our schools.”

A vigil is held outside Stoke Newington Police Station for Rashan Charles who died after being apprehended by a police officer

A vigil is held outside Stoke Newington Police Station for Rashan Charles who died after being apprehended by a police officer, 24 July 2017

Howard Jones/WENN/Alamy

Hackney also has a history of strong opposition to police in schools: its branch of the National Teachers’ Union was behind a campaign to remove officers from education environments in the 1980s.

Millie Brown from Hackney Cop Watch, who is also a teacher, agrees that the Hackney context is important to understanding what happened in Child Q’s case.

She explains that Hackney’s Child Q safeguarding report details 25 strip searches of children in Hackney in 2021. Of those, nothing was found on 22 of the children – revealing how ineffective strip searches are on their own terms.

“So this incident is part of a wider trend at the hands of police in Hackney and, I suppose, the hands of schools,” Brown says, explaining that Hackney has been “ground zero” for attempts to marketise education – both in terms of the conversion of council-run schools into academies, and the ‘zero tolerance education’ strategy of strict authoritarian enforcement of rules.

Brown adds: “The actions of teachers in this school are unfortunately reflective of others in the borough.”

She describes the particularly carceral techniques used in Hackney schools to discipline children, from two-hour detentions for hugging or wearing the wrong socks to the story of Ruby Williams who was repeatedly sent home from a Hackney school because her natural afro hair was deemed “too big”. Williams eventually won an out-of-court payout of £8,500.

Ruby Williams was repeatedly sent home from a Hackney school because her natural afro hair was deemed ‘too big’

The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Board has also published a number of other papers revealing problems with school violence in the borough.

Four-year-old Chadrack Mbala-Mulok, for instance, starved to death after his mum collapsed and died, and no one from school went to check up on them.

Another Hackney safeguarding review of Tashaun Aird, who was stabbed to death in May 2019, found his permanent exclusion exposed him “to a new more challenging environment”. In some English local authorities, Black Caribbean children are five times more likely to be excluded than white children.

‘No police in schools’

Siobhan O'Neill is from the Northern Police Monitoring Project in Manchester, which runs a joint ‘No Police in Schools’ campaign alongside the group Kids of Colour.

O'Neill says: “In 2020 we asked 554 young people, parents, teachers and community members what their views and experiences were of police in schools. Overwhelmingly there wasn’t support and a number of concerns were raised.”

In this report, titled ‘Decriminalise the Classroom’, one young person says an officer would also use excessive language in meetings towards students “even calling them ‘sluts’ and ‘slags’”.

An officer would also use excessive language in meetings towards students even calling them ‘sluts’ and ‘slags’

Another says: “The police officer once came into an assembly in uniform and said that girls cannot wear short skirts as it would be their fault if a man looks underneath or takes a photo, and that it is uncomfortable for male teachers.”

And another young person concludes: “The police don’t have a role in schools. If they do, then why are they not in Eton and Harrow?”.

Parents and guardians also shared their concerns of having police presence in schools: “My eldest daughter had a terrible experience at [a school] where onsite police officers conducted an illegal interview with her on school premises and without my knowledge.

“During this interview they threatened to throw my daughter in the back of a police van. There were five members of school staff in that room, none of whom protected my daughter from this vile and abhorrent abuse of power.”

‘We’re full of rage’

Tonight, 18 March, young people, youth workers, parents, teachers and others are gathering at Stoke Newington Police Station to protest the case of Child Q.

“We’re full of rage,” Bei of No Exclusions tells me. “I want the message to get out there to mobilise, Black parents or parents of Black children. We need parents to wake up and get out in the street, make noise, support organisations, do whatever you can to create a resistance.”

Ade adds: “I believe that there shouldn’t be any strip searches, especially for under-18s…

“Police are allowed to do stuff like that. They are allowed – in my opinion – to sexually assault people at will. Because if they say they can smell cannabis in there, or they can smell cannabis on you, they can take you for a ‘strippy’. There’s nothing that can stop that. They just have to say they can smell it. They can say: ‘I saw you put your hand down your trousers.’ That’s it.”

* Names have been changed

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