School’s failure to monitor internet contributed to girl’s suicide, coroner says

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A school’s failure to sufficiently monitor the internet activity of a 15-year-old autistic girl “contributed” to her suicide, a coroner has concluded.

Frances-Rose Thomas, known as Frankie, took her own life at home in Witley in 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.

Reading her conclusion at Woking Coroner’s Court on Wednesday, coroner Karen Henderson said she believed Frankie was influenced by the material she had accessed.

She told the inquest: “Frances-Rose Thomas had a number of underlying vulnerabilities, including significant childhood trauma, high-functioning autism and impulsivity.

Frances-Rose Thomas
Frances-Rose Thomas (Family handout/PA)

“She died at 6.57pm on September 25 2018 at Royal Surrey County Hospital after being found unresponsive… at her home address at or around 5pm the same day, an hour after she was last known to be alive.

“On the day of her death, Frances had unrestricted access to the internet at school and in the absence of any effective e-security monitoring system and personal supervision, she sought out and read stories about members of her favourite band featuring suicidal acts.

“She left a note declaring an intention to end her life.”

She said Frankie was “naive” and a teenager with “complex needs”.

However, it was 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.

Ms Henderson said she was satisfied this was an “enormous and systemic failure on the part of the school”.

An investigation into her computer after her death found she had been able to access material relating to self-harm and suicide over a few months, the inquest heard.

Andy and Judy Thomas, parents of Frances-Rose Thomas, outside Woking Coroner's Court following the inquest into the death of their daughter
Andy and Judy Thomas, parents of Frances-Rose Thomas, outside Woking Coroner’s Court following the inquest into the death of their daughter (Ted Hennessey/PA)

Ms Henderson said: “No-one other than Frankie knew she had accessed these websites, the systems in place were inadequate.

“It was essential for the school and her family to have known at the earliest opportunity.”

She added: “Frankie clearly and deliberately sought out these sites, however the school’s e-security monitoring systems did not stop this access.”

It was also heard that Frankie was able to download content on social storytelling platform Wattpad, allowing her to read about characters carrying out suicidal acts.

Ms Henderson criticised the platform’s “lack of robustness” in failing to stop children accessing “inappropriate stories”.

She concluded: “I am satisfied that Frances-Rose Thomas died by way of suicide.

“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.

Frankie’s parents, Judy and Andy Thomas, said after the inquest: “Frankie was such a big part of our lives and it was a total privilege to be her parents and we were proud of her.

“She had such potential and we believed in her 100%. She was seriously unique and we miss her terribly and still cannot believe she has gone.

“We were genuinely horrified when we learned of the material Frankie had access to online while at school, where we assumed she would be kept safe.

“We believe that the access Frankie had to harmful material ultimately led to her death.

“We urge all schools, especially those who cater for children with special educational needs, to make sure they have the highest levels of filtering on their equipment.

“This should block access to dangerous material and immediately alert delegated staff to access attempts, who can then follow up with the student concerned and their parents or carers.

“Pupils should also be supervised when online.”

They also called for a stronger stance from the Department for Education to ensure the safeguarding of pupils from online harms is standardised across all schools.

Merry Varney, partner at law firm Leigh Day, who represented the family, said: “The inquest into the death of Frankie has heard disturbing evidence of failings in her school’s e-safety system and of Frankie accessing explicit and suicide and self-harm related material, both through online searches and on the platform Wattpad on the day of her death.

“We welcome the coroner’s robust findings that the school failed in multiple ways to provide any online safety for Frankie or other pupils – no monitoring, no understanding of the system and no agreement as to who was responsible.”

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.

“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.”

– The Samaritans can be reached by phone for free on 116 123, day or night, or they can be emailed at jo@samaritans.org.

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