The parents of a 15-year-old autistic girl who died by suicide after a school did not monitor her online activity have said what happened was a “catastrophic failure” as they warned the Department for Education against complacency.
Frances-Rose Thomas, known as Frankie, took her own life at home in Witley, Surrey, on September 25 2018 after reading a story on a school iPad with no filter earlier that day, in which a character had died by suicide.
The inquest into her death heard that while attending Stepping Stones school, in Hindhead, Frankie was allowed unfiltered access to an iPad despite having a “bespoke education plan” to avoid such a thing.
Coroner Karen Henderson said she was satisfied this was an “enormous and systemic failure on the part of the school”.
The coroner has now told the Education Secretary action should be taken to prevent future deaths, adding that the guidelines issued by the Department for Education “require updating and are insufficiently robust to ensure their effectiveness”.
They said inspections should involve more than receiving assurances from a school about their policies and that a school’s e-safety equipment should be physically checked to ensure it is connected and working, with alerts both issued and monitored.
They said: “Frankie was not safe at school, despite inspections, and parents need to know that their child’s internet access at school has full protections in place.
“The internet can be an extremely dangerous place, particularly for those with special educational needs like Frankie and what happened to her was a catastrophic failure.
“There really are no words to describe the shock of your child suddenly dying one day – just like that – which you can never change, and we hope it will be a ‘wake-up’ call which will sharpen focus regarding safety, and not just be another sad story with nothing significant changing by the Department for Education.
“There must not be any complacency and there should be proactive commitment to a plan to enforce this guidance and continuously update it to reflect the ever-changing nature of the internet and the various sites that pupils may try to access.
The inquest, which took place earlier this year, heard an investigation into Frankie’s computer after her death found she had been able to access material relating to self-harm and suicide over a few months.
On October 6 at Woking Coroner’s Court, Ms Henderson said: “I find the way in which Stepping Stones school failed to ensure sufficient e-monitoring of Frankie’s iPad, and follow her bespoke educational plan, more than minimally contributed to her actions later that day.”
Ms Henderson also described the way in which schools self-moderate material online as the “Wild West” and called for the Department for Education to impose rules every educational establishment must follow.
In a prevention of future deaths report sent to the Education Secretary, Ms Thomas said she heard evidence the Department for Education have devolved responsibility for e-security systems with schools having to tender for web filtering software and hardware.
Ms Henderson said there is a wide range of software vendors providing different lists of blocklists with different vendors enabling different categories “with no oversight or regulatory guidance by the Department for Education as to what ‘blocklists’ are either acceptable and/or suitable for a school environment”.
In the report, published this week, she said: “In summary, on the evidence I heard there appears to be inadequate regulatory oversight with now outdated guidance issued by the Department for Education with regard to robust standards of e-security systems within schools.”
Ms Henderson said in her opinion “action should be taken to prevent future deaths”.
Merry Varney, partner at law firm Leigh Day, who represents Judy and Andy Thomas, said: “It is time for the Department for Education to show leadership and implement strong guidance for all schools to keep pupils as safe as possible online and to give schools the tools they need to make sure children are better protected, and staff are made aware if they are looking at harmful content.”
A Government spokesman said: “This tragic case highlights the vital importance of protecting children, but particularly the most vulnerable, from harmful content online – both at home and at school.
“Schools have a legal duty to keep their pupils safe and our statutory safeguarding guidance sets out in detail how we expect them to protect pupils from potentially harmful online material, such as content on suicide or self-harm.
“All children and young people are also taught about online safety as part of the new mandatory relationships, sex and health education curriculum, as well as through citizenship and computing, and this Government’s Online Safety Bill will deliver ground-breaking new laws which make sure tech companies prevent children from accessing self-harm and suicide content which risks causing them harm.”