The ACT Government has released photographs of a restricted classroom at the Woden School for a boy with complex autism whose family has claimed it is like a jail or cage.
Minister for Education Yvette Berry was forced to respond after the Canberra Times published a report that 18-year-old Abdul-Ghani Ferkh, who had been indefinitely suspended from the Woden School in April, had been invited back under strict new conditions, including not being able to interact with other students and some staff, and his movement limited to a fenced-off demountable classroom, only accessible through a side gate at the back of the campus.
The report said that preparations detailed by staff in correspondence included boarding up the back rooms of the demountable and installing a floor-to-ceiling security gate along its veranda.
Abdul had been suspended after running off the campus grounds to the local shops and stealing a toy, but his suspension was extended multiple times and then became indefinite.
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The Canberra Times reported that the school had said this was to allow time to prepare a secure environment for Abdul, who allegedly had also physically assaulted staff and damaged property.
His mother Safaa Joumaa-Ferkh told the Canberra Times that her son had become very upset when he arrived at the new facility for his first day back on Thursday and was not himself when he returned home at noon.
“It’s a big cage,” she said. “I didn’t want him to go but he wanted to see his friends. When we go to the gate, he look at me and he was so sad, we are so worried. Now he has to stare at the other children through the bars. They are just isolating him more. What about his rights?”
The Canberra Times said the doors were also locked as Abdul was still considered a flight risk, but the set-up was to be reviewed in two weeks, after which the school would consider allowing one or two of his peers to visit during recess.
Ms Berry said the Government would not discuss the individual circumstances of the case, which has echoes of the 2015 boy-in-the-cage controversy that led to an independent review into students with complex needs and challenging behaviours.
“Our schools avoid restrictive practices wherever possible. In situations in which spaces like these may be used to protect the safety of an individual student, staff or others, careful judgments are made by our staff, informed by psychological and behavioural advice,” she said.
“I have met with the school principal and seen the classroom in question. I have also discussed with him measures in place to support the family, staff, students and broader school community who may be affected.
“I have been assured that appropriate steps have been taken at all times and the school has rightly made safety and wellbeing the top priority.”
In July the Government appointed Mandy Donley as the ACT’s first Senior Practitioner to work closely with organisations across Canberra and the ACT community to provide education and to raise awareness about how to reduce and eliminate restrictive practices.
It is believed Ms Donley was notified about the case on Thursday.
The Government is undertaking special education reforms to reduce restrictive practices and increase inclusion in schools in the wake of the cage affair.