[CORRECTION: When this article was published earlier this week, we were not aware that Manning Gardens Public School operates a segregated education support for children with disability and the article misidentified the school as “a regular primary school on the NSW mid-north coast, which does not have an education support unit”. In fact, the Manning Gardens Public School website states “We have a purpose built support unit catering for children with intellectual disabilities or developmental delays”. This new information reinforces the point that we sought to make, that while the story on 7.30 was framed as the failings of education of students with disability in a regular classrooms, both children attended segregated education supports unit co-located within regular public schools, an important detail that should have been included in 7.30’s report.]
ABC television’s 7.30 featured a story about Austin Franks, a 16-year-old autistic student at Pennant Hills High School being subjected to restraint practices including boxing pads to move him from room to room.
The story was presented in the shocking context of almost 250 reported complaints of mistreatment of disabled children in NSW state schools in the past two years, which are detailed in a government document obtained by 7.30 under Freedom of Information laws.
While the importance of investigative journalism of this nature should be recognised, All Means All has some concerns about how the story was framed and an implication that students with disability are better off in segregated environments, contrary to a large body of research over 4 decades that shows that students with disability educated with their non-disabled peers develop stronger skills in reading and mathematics, have higher rates of attendance, are less likely to be labelled as having “behavioural problems” and are more likely to complete secondary school than students who have not been included. As adults, students with disability who have been included are more likely to be enrolled in post-secondary education, and to be employed or living independently. In other words, being disconnected from one’s community and same-age “typical” peers comes at a significant cost to disabled students and their families, as well as to society as a whole.
However, the story was introduced as follows:
“Austin would present a challenge for any school. He is severely autistic, non-verbal and has an intellectual disability. But Pennant High School in Sydney accepted the responsibility of educating him alongside his mainstream peers. Thing went terribly wrong.”
The suggestion being that despite its best intentions of educating Austin “alongside his mainstream peers”, the regular education system had failed.
All Means All understands that Austin in fact attended an education support unit (with a high adult-to-student ratio) co-located with the regular public school. That is certainly not the same as being educated in a regular classroom in a regular school with appropriate support. It is in fact segregated “special education”, as defined by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is not inclusive education in a regular classroom – which is a fundamental right of all students.
Austin’s mother Caroline Franks then details what she observed and her interactions with her son’s school.
“He would come [home] covered in blood,” Austin’s mother, Caroline Franks, told 7.30 through tears.
“I would ring the school and say ‘what happened?’ And they would say, ‘oh, we don’t know, we don’t know what’s caused it’.
“They failed to mention he was being pushed around with boxing batons or screamed at or not allowed to go to the toilet or access his sandwiches or anything like that.”
7.30 also reported on the story of another child, Thomas Maker-North who was strapped last year into two different types of chairs at Manning Gardens Public School, a regular primary school on the NSW mid-north coast, which does not have an education support unit. Again, the suggestion is made that the problem is with the regular education system and his mother expresses the view that she now felt she would need to consider a “special school” for her son. In other words, “special education” is presented as the answer, a point that has been picked up by many people on social media whose response has been to question the fundamental human right of students with disability to attend regular schools and to blame the victims or their families for pursuing educational rights for their children.
But when you scratch the surface of the 7.30 report, Austin’s story is not about the failings of inclusive education in a regular classroom – it is rather an indictment on the special education “strategies” delivered in a segregated education support unit co-located with a regular public school.
It is unclear how Manning Gardens Public School came to decide to use a restraint chair on Thomas Maker-North but All Means All is aware that these strategies are often introduced by “specialist” staff or consultants such as occupational therapists or physiotherapists brought into schools to advise on strategies for students with disability.
It is concerning that 7.30 framed its report on abuse of children with disability in education around the failings of the general education system together with implicit as well as explicit suggestions that segregated “special education” is the answer, when in fact the logic of supporting students with disability with more “segregation” and often archaic “special education” strategies, needs to be seriously questioned.
Restraint and seclusion strategies are a form of child abuse and are more than wrong – they are unconscionable and in many cases they are criminal. The practical capacity for staff to use restraint and seclusion is a function of the culture and tolerance of the educational setting.
It is a sad reality that children with disability are being restrained and abused in both regular and segregated educational settings and data on the abuse, not to mention the breakdown by educational setting, is difficult if not impossible to obtain.
However, it is undeniable that children with disability and especially those who are non-speaking or have intellectual disability, are more vulnerable in “special” settings where segregation and isolation mask and act as major barriers to identifying and reporting abusive behaviour. It is often non-disabled peers in the regular classroom who will blow the whistle on the abuse of this nature of a classmate, and that is one very good reason why students with disability – including those who are labelled or perceived as having “behavioural issues” – are likely to be safer and more respected as individuals in regular classrooms with appropriate support. Similarly, regular education staff who have not been conditioned to these practices are also more likely to resist and report them.
We urge Australian journalists, whose work is so critical to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in our community, to recognise when reporting on education of students with disability that segregated “special” education is not evidence-based, does not align with human rights principles and does not keep students with disability safer.[Cover photo © Sam McGehee]