Disturbing allegations have come to light in Australia concerning the widespread abuse of children with disabilities, including at a school where the principal was suspended after a cage was built to control a ten-year-old boy with autism.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Rachel Browne reports that this was not the first high-profile case of abuse in the country’s schools. Children have been put in isolation rooms, tied to furniture, or physically restrained by staff members at some schools. Children with Disability Australia (CDA) Chief Executive Stephanie Gotlib calls the practices “abuse” and adds that calls to the organization from parents who are upset at this treatment of their children have increased. Gotlib has raised the issue on many occasions with the Australian educational authorities:
“It is increasing and it’s a clear reflection of a system which is inadequate in meeting the needs of students with a disability. Teachers are stretched to the max. Some of them don’t have appropriate training. The system is in crisis.”
The cage-building issue shocked the student’s father, university lecturer David Roy. He became aware of the abuse when his son, Fraser, came home from school with bruising on his arm. Fraser, who is six, is non-verbal and has been diagnosed with autism and severe dyspraxia. When his parents took him to the hospital to check out his injuries, they were told that the bruising was caused by a hand.
When Fraser was taken home, his behavior began to deteriorate into panic attacks, nightmares, and parroting of the word “retard”. Since this was a word not used in the household, Roy surmised that Fraser must have heard it at school. When Roy reported his son’s case to the Department of Education, the case was found to have insufficient evidence to support the allegations. Dr Sally Robinson, a research fellow at Southern Cross University, said:
“Children and young people with disability experience higher incidences of interpersonal harm at school compared to their peers, and across multiple life domains are abused at approximately three times the rate of children without disability.”
She believes that the majority of staff working with children who have disabilities are well-intentioned, but often under-resourced.
The Canberra school, which is now under investigation, built the 2 meter x 2 meter cage and called it a “withdrawal space.” CDA has made a submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with a Disability, informing the organization that children have been locked up in time-out rooms for long periods of time, that martial arts instructors have been hired by schools for “behavior management”, and children have even been denied the right to go to the toilet, report Lanai Scarr and Leigh Van Den Broeke for The Daily Telegraph.
A report by Radio Australia revealed that the child was kept in the cage from March 10 through March 27. Joy Birch, ACT education minister and the minister for disability, says the boy remains at the school, but now two senior staff members are assigned as support for him. Sneha Shankar, reporting for the International Business Times, quotes Birch:
“I have initiated an absolute thorough investigation as to the why and where … this structure was allowed to be put in place. I have also made assurances through the school executive and through our support teams that the child and the family involved is given the utmost support over this time.”