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Neil Harris: How abusive dance teacher went unchecked for decades

image copyrightWest Midlands Police
image captionNeil Harris was two years into a jail sentence when he was convicted of more offences
For decades, Neil Harris used his position as a dance and gymnastics teacher to sexually abuse his vulnerable victims. This summer he has been jailed for a second time and some of Harris's victims have told of the impact the childhood attacks have had on their lives.
Harris's job at his mother's Birmingham dance school, which he later took over after her death, left him in a unique position to prey on pupils.
Victims have told how he did not allow his pupils to wear underwear underneath their leotards and would use checking for underwear as a pretext to assault them.
Harris was jailed in and in for sex offences. But before that his actions went unchecked for years, with criminal records checks - now commonplace for adults working with children - unlikely to have taken place, police have said.
image copyrightWest Midlands Police
image captionCriminal record checks were unlikely to have been carried out on Harris, pictured here in a police interview
Popular and well-known in the local dance community, for more than 50 years Harris taught at the Ann Harris School of Dance, which was established by his mother and operated from their home on Cecil Road in Erdington.
His "charming" personality enabled him to gain the trust and groom parents and children alike, said Det Con Nikki Thomas, the officer who led both investigations into Harris.
"He presents himself as a very friendly individual," she said. "The witnesses, some of them will say he used to flirt with the mothers of the children.
"He was a bit of a charmer. He was a larger than life character.
"Because he was very good at his craft a lot of people looked up to him. He was seen by the children as a god. A number of witnesses have said that to me.
"He was very much untouchable."
But behind his friendly facade lay a man described by prosecutors as a "persistent, predatory paedophile". Harris, now 75, they said, used "twin disguises of amiability and authority to obscure his depredations".
"We used to call him creepy Neil," said Gemma - whose real name we are not using to protect her identity but who took dance classes with Harris from the ages of five to 11.
"His hand used to be all over you, he used to put his hands down your leotard."
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHarris was jailed for assaulting pupils between the 1960s and 1990s
His behaviour went unchallenged as he was often the only adult present. Police said as he ran his mother's business, which then became his business, it was likely he would not have conducted any Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
The combination of being almost the only authority figure over very young children "may go some way to explain why some of the witnesses tolerated the abuse he perpetrated for such a long time", prosecutors said.
Harris's abuse first came to light when a victim approached police in 2015.
And when Det Con Thomas took on the case she was left "astounded" at the number of potential witnesses she approached who turned out to be victims.
Victims told of Harris routinely touching them inappropriately and putting his hands inside their clothes.
One said because the assaults took place in disco dancing classes, she associated the Village People's YMCA with the abuse she had suffered.
Harris received a five-year sentence in 2018 for indecently assaulting four girls in the 1970s and 80s and in June was jailed for eight years for 25 further offences of indecent assault on 10 girls and one boy between the 1960s and 1990s. He will remain on the sex offenders register for life.
The impact of his crimes has been significant.
Gemma, now 56, has undergone counselling and said to this day she "can't stand people touching me".
image copyrightWest Midlands Police
image captionNeil Harris was convicted following two trials at Birmingham Crown Court
Another victim, Sandra - again not her real name - who was five when she attended the dance school, said the abuse was a trigger for mental health problems she has experienced throughout her life.
"By sexually assaulting me at the age of five, Neil Harris took something that is very difficult to explain to other people," she said.
"It was the moment when I realised my world wasn't safe and it's taken many years to understand this. It left an emptiness that felt like there was something physically missing.
"Years on I believed that I was to blame, that bad things just happen to me. This internalised shame and continued silence has been one of the most psychologically damaging things for me in my life."
Sandra has struggled with trust issues and said it was only now, at the age of 41, that she had been able to "face it head on and start the process of healing".
While there are currently no ongoing proceedings, Det Con Thomas said she believed the true number of Harris's victims could be much higher.
"It's really difficult to say and put a number on the number of victims who are out there and who haven't come forward," she said. "We know that he was committing offences from 1967-1991.
"He had multiple classes each day and the suggestion from each of the victims was he touched up all of the children in that class repeatedly."
image copyrightDet Con Nikki Thomas
image captionDet Con Nikki Thomas said the true number of victims could be higher
Many of Harris's victims came forward after seeing media coverage of the first trial, including Gemma who attended court to face her attacker.
It was an experience she described as "awful", but she said to see him handed his sentence "felt like he got justice".
For Sandra, the legal process has helped her process her emotions.
She added: "Having gone through the legal system I now realise how resilient I am and that the blame and shame I have felt is not mine to keep. Just knowing there were others somehow gave me some strength to go through with it."

Related Topics

  • Birmingham
  • Erdington
  • West Midlands Police
  • Children
  • Child grooming

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