Dear Head Teacher,
In the light of recent reports involving an unknown man in a white van accosting young children in the Southend area, I feel it is prudent for me to contact every Head Teacher in Southend to provide a personal update. I am sure we are all very aware of the understandably high levels of coverage this matter has received in the media (social & local) and that parents and children alike are extremely concerned. To date you will only have received information from well-intended but often misleading comments made on social media sites. These have been compounded by two successive, very strong and in my opinion misleading front page headlines in the Southend Echo. As a result I have decided to provide a summary of some of the key facts from the 4 incidents reported to us so far, in order for you to provide advice and reassurance to your staff, parents and pupils. As such, I actively invite you to share this correspondence with staff, parents and pupils as you see fit.
Our investigations are still on-going and further reports are now being received by the Police across Essex and into London on a daily basis. Each one is being assessed and proportionately investigated in turn. The highest priority for the Police will always be to protect people from harm. Clearly however, harm can come in many different forms and includes suffering from fear. As such I would like to offer the following words of reassurance based upon the facts as established by the Police –
· No attempt has been made to physically take hold of a child.
· Of the 4 initial reports, 2 involve young males describing being offered a lift / asked to get in a van. The descriptions of the male and the van vary. They occurred within 15 - 30 minutes of each other, 6 miles apart during the evening rush hour on Thursday 3rdOctober.
· A further 2 reports involved people aware of this story on Facebook being understandably concerned when watched by a male in a white van. One was an adult with two very small children.
· The descriptions of the males (old / young / bald / short hair / green top / white top) and vans (small white van / Transit / dirty / clean) vary on each occasion. As such it is unlikely that the four reported incidents are connected. That said, we cannot conclusively state that they are not connected and therefore continue with an open mind.
· Despite Facebook comments to the contrary, there is no known registration number for any of the vehicles involved. We are monitoring Facebook and have made several enquiries in relation to claims made, all of which are incorrect and not linked to the incidents reported.
Moving forward, I would like to make the following points –
· We will take every report seriously. This is not just our job, it is our responsibility.
· Our advice has not changed. Child abduction is EXTREMELY rare, but that is not to say that it cannot happen. I am greatly reassured by the way in which the children in our Borough have demonstrated their ‘stranger danger’ awareness. Clearly this message has been taken on board and I am aware that many teachers have recently re-enforced this message as part of a proportionate response which can only be a good thing.
· There are hundreds, if not thousands of white vans in Southend alone, with many more visiting on a daily basis. By the very nature of their use they will often be parked up in highly populated areas as they wait for people in connection with their business. We have to guard against seeing every white van as a threat and owners / drivers of white vans must recognise the fear local residents may feel in their presence, considering the impact of their actions accordingly.
· Children must be reminded to report honestly and avoid the temptation to become part of the story. I make this point knowing the possible reaction it could cause but it must be said. Whilst typing this message I have taken a call from an officer who has just had a young student confess to fabricating an account after considerable time was spent on the matter by teachers and officers alike. No further details will be provided as there will be no repercussions from us on this matter due to the fact that the student found the courage to be become honest and considerable extra public alarm was averted as a result. I must stress that this occurrence will not alter the way in which we approach future reports.
· I would like to remind everybody that Facebook is a social media site and as such its success is no doubt due to it being superb in that way. It is not however, a system for accurately recording investigations into serious matters such as this. I urge everybody therefore to use Facebook in the way it is intended and resist the temptation to believe that it provides an accurate, credible and up to date source of information into serious investigations because it does not.
Lastly I would like to provide further reassurance by stating that I too am a resident in the Borough and have 3 children, all of whom are at school in Southend. I am in receipt of all the facts and have reassured my children that everything is OK and they are to carry on as normal. In other words enjoying themselves whilst always being aware of ‘stranger danger.’ I therefore ask that parents are encouraged to do the same. Should the situation change I will ensure that everybody is made aware, but the facts at present demonstrate that this is not likely.