The United Nations has been asked to investigate dozens of incidents in which children with disabilities were allegedly assaulted, locked in dark rooms and restrained in Australian schools.
Although there is no research as to how widespread this problem is, these cases point to a wider concern that students are experiencing a range of harms in schools, and that teachers are struggling to support students with increasingly complex needs.
Following extensive hearings, last year’s Senate Inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability recommended the elimination of restrictive practices against children as a national priority.
A recent large report by the Victoria Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into experiences of school students with disability found that of the 900 teachers who responded, 60% reported having used restraint. Just over half also said they were inadequately trained to deal with this situation.
The costs of this are too high for children and families, and alarm many working in schools.
Taking concerns about harm of students to the UN is a strong indication that existing systems are not working for at least some students with disability.
Distress and discord
Restraint, however, is the tip of the iceberg for students with disability.
In 2014, we conducted qualitative research about safety and harm in school for students with cognitive disabilities.
We found that the needs and rights of children with disabilities were not well recognised.
Children, young people and their families reported harms ranging from cruel insults and threats to physical assaults, broken bones, and sexual assault.
Students talked predominantly about the ongoing (sometimes daily) interpersonal abuses they face or faced, mostly from other students but also from educators and transport staff, and how these impacted on their confidence, happiness and well-being.
They felt unheard and isolated, unable to ask for help or that help was not provided when they sought it.
Families raised more critical incident types of injury and assault, and talked about the resulting distress and discord these harms caused. They also mentioned the difficulties they had in trying to resolve both the causes and the effects of the harm.
Families described poor communication, negative attitudes of school personnel, and a lack of adequate concern expressed by schools for the harm experienced by their child.
Complexity meets low expectations
Teachers and administrators in schools and associated support professionals, including child protection and disability support workers and psychologists, spoke more systemically about the impact of low expectations, discrimination and lack of access to needed support.
Many of them perceived the abuses experienced by students with cognitive disability (including intellectual disability, autism, acquired brain injury and learning disabilities) arising in response to these entrenched cultural and structural barriers.
They saw both students and school environments becoming increasingly complex, and felt they had to draw on fewer resources (financial, collaborative and cultural) to best support students with cognitive disability, particularly in mainstream schools.
They particularly stressed difficulties in both finding out what they needed to know to better support students, and in sharing this information with colleagues who might be unwilling to take up inclusive practice.
They said how difficult it could be to support individual children when leadership was poor or systems were not in place to support action.
The rights of children with disability to the educational and social benefits of inclusive education were at times poorly recognised.
In situations where harm or abuse of students was responded to well by schools, a number of elements were at play.
Individual issues were dealt with effectively and promptly, and within a climate created by strong leadership. This set a tone in which inclusion of all students was expected, harm of students was not tolerated, and achievements of all students were celebrated.
For students, this meant being known and valued by someone, being acknowledged, listened to, and having concerns taken seriously.
These connections gave them somewhere to turn if things were not going well, increased the likelihood that they would be believed and that action would be taken.
Many children and young people in our study did not feel that they had someone in their school who filled this role.
The need for better linkages and stronger measures
At a systems level, it was clear from an analysis of law and policy that better linkages are needed between the existing legal and policy frameworks in education, disability and child protection.
The rights and interests of students with disability need to be prioritised within these frameworks and made more visible as a priority group in national policy.
The Australian Law Reform Commission points to the piecemeal nature of regulatory efforts across the country as insufficient to protect the rights of people with disability who are subject to restraint. However, recent initiatives at a national level, including the development of a national quality and safeguards system for the NDIS, provide a timely opportunity to inform a uniform approach to regulating restrictive practices. This applies nationally across a range of settings, including schools.
Action is needed at a national level to promote safety and to eliminate restrictive practices. This should be through legislation and policy, which is then reflected in responsive, respectful practice in schools at the local level.
Safe cultures and focused strategies
The creation of safe school cultures is critical in preventing harm.
Positive behaviour support, engagement by the principal through all levels of the school in inclusion building activities at all levels of the school, and the promotion of a culture in which diversity is acknowledged and respected are core components of positive school cultures. These promote safety for all students, but especially students with disability.
Specific strategies to minimise the risk of abuse are more likely to succeed, such as clear, responsive policies at a local level; a focus on professional learning for teachers and other staff, as well as educative support for students and families.
This also includes early intervention to prevent student to student harm and guidance for students and staff in critical areas such as resolving conflict.
Sally Robinson received funding from the Law Foundation of NSW for this research. She also receives funding from the Australian Research Council, National Disability Research Working Group, and ANROWS.