London’s Metropolitan Police has apologised after facing widespread condemnation for the “traumatic” and racism-influenced strip-searching of a Black schoolgirl after her teachers wrongly thought she had cannabis on her.
An official safeguarding report into the 2020 incident at a secondary school in Hackney, north London, found the search was unjustified, influenced by racism and had a profound impact on the girl. It said the incident should never have happened.
During the search, carried out by two female officers because teachers said she smelled of cannabis, the 15-year-old girl’s intimate body parts were exposed, and she had a sanitary towel removed. The girl’s aunt told the review that the girl “was made to take her pad off, to bend over, spread her legs, use her hands to spread her buttocks cheek whilst coughing.”
The Metropolitan Police said the officers’ actions during the incident, which took place without parental consent, were “truly regrettable” and “should never have happened”.
The girl, anonymously referred to as Child Q, was a victim of what the report called "adultification bias", where adults perceive Black children as being older than they are because they seem more grown up and "streetwise".
The report said: “Having considered the context of the incident, the views of those engaged in the review and the impact felt by Child Q and her family, racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.
“The review and reference panel held a firm view that had Child Q not been Black, then her experiences are unlikely to have been the same.”
The report said the school was too focused on whether the girl had broken the rules rather than on her welfare. It said the search was not conducted in the presence of an appropriate adult and that police guidance says searches should not be carried out based on people smelling of cannabis alone.
The girl told the review that the incident had left her humiliated and traumatised. “Someone walked into the school, where I was supposed to feel safe, took me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period. I need to know that the people who have done this to me can't do it to anyone else ever again, in fact so no-one else can do this to any other child in their care."
Between 2020 and 2021 police in Hackney conducted 25 strip searches, mainly for drugs, of children under the age of 18, of which 22 found nothing. Two of the 25 children searched were white, while 15 were black.
The Met Police confirmed the case, described by London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “deeply disturbing”, is now being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a charity specialising in drugs and the law, told VICE World News: “The horrific and unlawful decision to force this child to remove her clothes to see if she was in possession of cannabis is another example of how the drug laws are used as a tool of racial oppression.
“For anyone who says punitive drug policies are about protecting our children, or that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, take a minute to think about the damage and trauma that young girl has suffered, and think about all the young black children who are routinely stopped and searched by the police on the grounds they might be in possession of drugs.”