The parents of a 15-year-old autistic girl who died by suicide after her school did not monitor her online activity have described the circumstances of her death as a “catastrophic failure” as they warned the Department for Education (DfE) against complacency.
Frances-Rose Thomas, known as Frankie, took her own life at home in Witley, Surrey, on 25 September 2018 after reading a story that involved suicide on a school iPad, which had no safety features.
Her parents, Judy and Andy, said their daughter “was not safe at school” and hoped their girl’s death could at least be a “wake-up call” to DfE.
Frankie was allowed unfiltered access to the iPad while attending Stepping Stones school in Hindhead, in contravention of her “bespoke education plan”, an inquest into her death heard earlier this year.
An investigation into the device after her death found Frankie had been able to access online material relating to self-harm and suicide over several months.
Coroner Karen Henderson described the way in which schools self-moderate material online as the “wild west” and said she was satisfied this was an “enormous and systemic failure on the part of the school”.
She told the education secretary action should be taken to prevent future deaths, and called for the DfE to impose rules every educational establishment must follow.
Existing guidelines issued by the DfE, she added, “require updating and are insufficiently robust to ensure their effectiveness”.
“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,” Henderson said.
Frankie’s parents, Judy and Andy Thomas, thanked the coroner for her report, which they said “mirrors many of our concerns about the lack of robust guidance from the Department for Education regarding e-safety in schools”.
They called for more thorough inspections exceeding mere assurances from a school about their policies, such as monitored safeguarding alerts, and physical control checks of a school’s e-safety equipment.
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.
“We trust that policies will be enforced, and that guidance will not just be ‘a choice’ when pupils’ lives may be at real risk, and that this will truly result in the prevention of future deaths.”
A government spokesperson 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.”
They added that the forthcoming online safety bill would help “prevent children from accessing self-harm and suicide content”.