By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - More than 10,000 young people in Britain have recounted what they say are teenage experiences of sexual harassment and abuse by fellow teens in an outpouring described by a senior police officer as a "#MeToo movement" for schools.
Their stories, posted anonymously on a website called "Everyone's Invited" at a rapidly accelerating pace over the past three weeks, make harrowing reading.
The website is the brainchild of Soma Sara, 22, who says she experienced what she calls rape culture within her teenage social circle, and decided to act after conversations with friends convinced her this was a pervasive problem.
"I'm talking about when behaviour that's not normal is normalised, so something like groping at a Christmas party, or non-consensual sharing of intimate photos, or derogatory sexist comments," she told Reuters.
"When those things are normalised they can actually act as a gateway to more extreme acts and criminal acts such as sexual assault and rape."
The majority of stories on "Everyone's Invited" are of girls being mistreated by boys, though there are also some accounts of boy-on-boy, girl-on-girl and girl-on-boy abuse. A significant minority are by boys who express disgust at things they witnessed, or in some cases did.
The author of one post says she was 14 when she passed out drunk on a sofa and woke up with someone's penis in her mouth. Another says she shared nude photos with her boyfriend which he sent to his friends. Another describes kissing a boy for the first time in her life only for him to push her head down towards his crotch.
Some of the gravest incidents described, if confirmed, could constitute criminal offences including assault and rape. London's Metropolitan Police described the outpouring as "deeply concerning" and encouraged victims to come forward to report potential crimes.
"I think it's reasonable to predict that there is going to be a significant number of reports that are going to come into the system," said Simon Bailey, a senior police officer in charge of child protection issues nationally, on BBC radio.
"It's the #MeToo movement for schools," he said. "We are dealing with the tip of the iceberg."
Sara attended Wycombe Abbey, an exclusive boarding school for girls west of London. Her own exposure to behaviour she found inappropriate came in her wider social circle which included boys from other schools.
In part because of her background and the people with whom she was connected online, her initiative first gained traction among pupils and ex-pupils of private schools, including some of Britain's most prestigious.
Those who post on "Everyone's Invited" cannot name people, but they can name their school or university.
They described a toxic, mysogynistic culture among pupils that appeared at odds with the private schools' reputations as havens for well-rounded, confident teenagers excelling not just academically but also at sports, music and arts.
Highgate, one of London's most in-demand private schools and the subject of a number of posts, said on its website it was "deeply shocked and horrified". It has commissioned an independent review into the allegations, led by a retired judge.
Dulwich College in London, one of the oldest and most prestigious boys' schools in the country, which has also been mentioned in the posts, said in a letter to parents, seen by Reuters, that it would investigate all allegations, either internally or by passing cases to the relevant authorities.
But as the outpouring has gained more media attention and word has spread across communities, a rapidly growing number of posts on "Everyone's Invited" have appeared linked to state schools and universities across the United Kingdom.
These events echo what has happened in Australia, where a former pupil of an exclusive girls' private school in Sydney opened up a flood of reports of sexual assaults at schools when she launched a petition earlier this year for consent to be included in sex education classes.
"I think this is a problem that exists everywhere. It's universal," said Sara. "It's in all schools, all universities, all of society."
(Additional reporting by Natalie Thomas and James Mackenzie, writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Janet Lawrence)