Five years on from the “child in a cage” incident, why are children with disabilities still being restrained?

Dominic Giannini 21 May 2021 10
Stacy Rheese

Stacy Rheese said there were instances where equipment or infrastructure was being used to isolate them from others. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Children with disabilities are still being detained in ACT schools, five years after the case of a 10 year old boy with autism being locked in a cage made national headlines, a Legislative Assembly standing committee on education and inclusion has been told.

While stakeholders say there hasn’t been an increase in reports about restrictive practices, there’s concern about a notable lack of progress since the infamous incident.

Citing both historical and recent examples, Advocacy for Inclusion’s (AFI) policy head Stacy Rheese says that misunderstandings about restrictive practices may be making it difficult for parents to identify when they are happening and teachers may be unaware they are engaging in such practices.

“I think it comes down to a lack of support and resources from schools,” Ms Rheese told Region Media. “We [should] have a focus on education for schools and staff in understanding what restrictive practices are.

“A lot of these things are not potentially seen as a restrictive practice. Situations might be seen as an alternative place for [students] rather than restricting access for a child to the class and engaging with others.”

AFI says that it is aware of at least two occasions in the last 12 months where a teacher held or otherwise detained a student with a disability in a restrictive manner.

On one occasion in 2019, a seven-year-old boy with epilepsy was found by his father “alone, distressed and dishevelled inside a locked classroom” at lunchtime.

The incident formed part of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal’s review into the child’s suspension from school months later.

The father reported that his son told him he had been called a baby by four boys, was punched and thrown to the ground.

A teacher had been in an adjoining classroom and said she locked the door so no one could enter when the boy said other students were “trying to get” him (or words to that effect).

The teacher told ACAT the boy could leave if he wished, and she spent some time playing with him to encourage him to relax.


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Restrictive practices have been limited in the ACT and can only occur when there is imminent harm to the person or others; the least restrictive measures possible are used in the circumstances; or restrictions is used in accordance with a registered positive behaviour support plan.

Ms Rheese questioned whether incidents are being recognised and reported by staff, or if oversight is picking them up.

“This situation is ongoing, and we want to see things significantly improve,” Ms Rheese said.

“We did have that shock and media attention around that cage example. Incidents are still happening but … the concern is that maybe it is not as obvious as a child in a cage. But if a child is being locked or separated or in some way restrained, how far have we progressed?

“Is it getting reported and reviewed the way it should be, or has it become something that is more overlooked or common practice because it is not as visible as something like a cage?”

An Education Directorate spokesperson said professional learning regarding the definition and use of restrictive practices were provided to schools, as were specific advice and support to meet the needs of students with complex behaviours.

“This professional learning has been available for ACT public schools since 2018 and the advent of the Senior Practitioner Act,” the spokesperson said.


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10 Responses to Five years on from the “child in a cage” incident, why are children with disabilities still being restrained?
jorie1 jorie1 7:46 am 25 May 21

Children with special needs should attend special schools that cater to those needs, otherwise it is unfair to the child to not recognise their special needs and provide assistance to them. It is also not fair to other children (who do not have special needs) to be put in a situation where their learning is impacted and negatively affected.

Anna Buckman Anna Buckman 2:16 am 25 May 21

Wow, the pressure is there. Our 4 years old son had 6 really bad injuries In preschool in ACT when same kid with special need been attacking our boy . Jumping on his belly while sleeping , throwing stones to heat his ear, put power drill toy to his eye , and more...The preschool headmaster mention this is normal in this age to have 6 injuries. And we are wrong to investigate this .

Drew Forrest Drew Forrest 6:25 pm 24 May 21

The behaviour of the management at some schools within the ACT is disgraceful, thankfully it is not all schools. Be wonderful if the Directorate took a little more interest in the needs of those with a disability and ensured that all schools were on the same page. The differences are astonishing !

Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 1:42 pm 24 May 21

We are so grateful our 10 year old son is able to attend Malkara, southside's primary school for children with moderate to severe special needs. I'd like to acknowledge the remarkable contribution of all staff, who go above and beyond every day and who volunteer so much of their own personal time to create a community built around our children and families. Malkara's cultural 'norm' is built around difference. The school's staff are exceptional with our children and they specifically choose to work with our children. They often say they love our children. For our children and us as parents with special needs children, this can be such a rare thing to hear as our children often evoke misunderstanding and pity.

I understand the need for inclusion if mainstream settings are in the best interests of the individual child but in my son's case, he began to self-harm when his neurotypical peers outstripped his capacity in every way. He cannot speak but his own comparison of his capacity to theirs caused him enormous distress. How wonderful it has been to see him happy and doing his own thing over the years surrounded by others who are also so very unique. Thank you Allison, Dagmar, Michelle, Andrea, Sarah and Darren for your leadership and love for our different kids. 💛

    Andrea de VaalHorciu Andrea de VaalHorciu 2:24 am 25 May 21

    Bri Heseltine this is so beautiful ☺️

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 7:48 am 25 May 21

    Andrea de VaalHorciu, we are so grateful for the love and support you give us all. 💖

Sam Hosking Sam Hosking 1:17 pm 24 May 21

The combination of no training being offered at schools/childcares for restrictive practice, and workplaces covering up incidents when this has happened is such a big issue in schools. My former workplace was extremely bad for doing this, it made it very hard for the staff who were trained and were working hard to not let it happen.

Wade Bermingham Wade Bermingham 12:13 pm 24 May 21

Theres really not much a teacher can do in any situation

Amber Jarvis Amber Jarvis 11:35 am 24 May 21

And these practices effect the mental and emotional well being of these young people who already struggle in a school environment. A few years ago I ended up leaving work and taking my son out of the school system due to him being completely isolated for months not even given the opportunity to join in at recess or lunch. Thank God we have found a beautiful and supportive school for him.

Lauryn Roberts Lauryn Roberts 10:26 am 24 May 21

Not enough staff to be able to offer support.

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