21 May 2021

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

| Dominic Giannini
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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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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.

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