This is appalling

A report in today’s Oz about the treatment meted out to 12 year old intellectually disabled (and autistic) child Neil Simons by his WA school:

A PERTH grandmother is waging a fierce battle with the state Education Department after discovering her 12-year-old intellectually disabled grandson was repeatedly locked in an outdoor caged enclosure at school.

Sheila Simons recently won her fight to have the enclosure removed from Kenwick School but is still pushing for the principal and teacher involved to be stood down, and a formal apology from the department.

Ms Simons, who has been Neil’s guardian since he was a toddler, said she was horrified when she first saw the enclosure.

“It was a cage. When I saw it I just cried. I cry every time I think of it. Neil was absolutely hysterical,” she said.

“He was saying, ‘Mummy help me, Mummy help me’. I thought, what the hell are they doing to him?”

The enclosure an area of grass the size of a small room surrounded by a 3.5m-high wire fence backing on to a demountable building had been purpose-built for Neil. It had a wooden bench but no toilet nor access to water.


Managing intellectually disabled and behaviourally disturbed children isn’t easy, and may well require resort to appropriate forms of physical restraint and withdrawal/isolation from other children on occasion, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that locking a kid up in an outdoor cage for prolonged periods with no water or toilet facilities is even remotely appropriate. In fact it’s child abuse, and a severe form thereof. Why aren’t WA child welfare authorities investigating activities at this school? Mightn’t other children be getting treated in an equally appalling manner?

It all brings back my own days as a 5 year old in a NSW public school kindergarten in the late 1950s. One of the other kids in my kindie class was a little boy named Sid Dawson. Incidentally, Sid was the nephew of renowned Australian baritone Peter Dawson, but that’s irrelevant to this story. Sid was an unholy little terror in class, frequently disruptive and with the attention span of a gnat. When I was much older I learned the reason: Sid was only barely 4 years old, and had been allowed to enrol long before the normal school commencement age (which was 5).

Sid undoubtedly presented a serious management problem for our class teacher Mrs Hilton. This was the peak of the baby boom, and the school’s resources were stretched to the limit. Class sizes averaged close to 40, and our class (and many others) was taught in a hastily erected tin demountable classroom. There were no teacher’s aides or other ancillary staff. If Mrs Hilton sent Sid out of the room when he was naughty and disruptive (which was much of the time), he was likely to disappear for the rest of the day. Allowing a four year old child to roam around the wilds of Sydney suburbia all day unsupervised might well have opened the school to legal action by the Dawson family, even in those less litigious days.

However, the solution Mrs Hilton fixed on was arguably even worse. Like most kindie classes then (and now, for that matter), all us kids would have a nap in the early afternoon. The classroom was equipped with sleeping mats, which were stored in a large wooden box with a hinged lid. It looked quite a lot like a coffin. Whenever Sid misbehaved, Mrs Hilton locked him in the mat box for half an hour or so. If they’d done it to me I know I would have kicked and screamed and literally gone psychotic: I’m more than a tad claustrophobic (and always have been). By contrast, Sid never made a noise while locked in the box, and was usually quiet for an hour or so after he was released. God knows what it did to this tiny child’s mind, though.

I don’t remember what happened to Sid after that. He was never in my class again after kindie, and I have no memory of him even being at the school. Maybe his family moved away. Maybe he was sent to a school for behaviourally disturbed children, like the one poor Neil Simons attends. Maybe they locked Sid in a cage too, where the other kids chucked rocks at him.

Update – the WA government must be feeling the heat: – the Minister has announced an “investigation” into the cage affair!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.
6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

It chills the blood. The poor kid has been treated, literally, like an animal. God knows what permanent damage has been done to him.

But it’s not just a matter of dealing with a disruptive child. An intellectually disabled and -especially -autistic child requires intensive attention from specially trained teachers. The education department is to blame for not looking after him. As for the teachers and principal who did this, they should be sacked forthwith.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Welcome to public education where the class teacher is increasingly expected to take children that were previously the preserve of special schools. Of course they are not allocated proper resources(staff) to cope with these children and must take these sort of actions to protect the educational interests of the class. I guess the alternative is for the teacher to attend to the needs of the handicapped child/ren, while the other parents abandon this class and the school if necessary.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Observa,

Your comment would be valid if this was merely a mainstream school trying to cope with a “special needs” child. But according to the Oz story it WAS a school specifically catering for intellectually disabled students. Accordingly, it’s not unreasonable to expect it to have developed skills, strategies, facilities and resources for coping with children like Neil. Cages don’t immediately spring to mind as the sorts of facilities they should have been building or using.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Woops! Read the linked article before you go off observa. Funny thing is, when I read your blog only Ken, I could believe it would happen in an ordinary primary school, if some of my teaching acquaintances tales are true. This sort of thing does happen, although the worst cases don’t seem to make it on to the high schools. The parents have usually given up on ‘normalising’ the child by then and handed them over to the professionals.

Reading the article and explanations of the experts makes this case a bit harder to judge. I can remember dropping my tackers at kindy and playgrounds behind ‘pool fences’ I wonder if these rate as ‘cages’?

Gareth
2022 years ago

Hi Ken,

I heard a teacher or principal from the school concerned speaking on the local Southern Cross station in the car on the way to work today, and from her comments, the case is not as simple as The Oz’s story makes it seem.

The teacher said advice had been sought from a professional in dealing with things like autism, and that specialist had recommended an enclosed area outside (because the kid tended to freak out when he was inside) that could be used for “time out” isolation. She said the specialist had not talked specifics on how this enclosure should be constructed, but he gave general guidelines that were incorporated into the final design of what has now become known as the “cage”.

The child in question’s behaviour included things like pushing other children out of wheelchairs and throwing classroom chairs.

The teacher said the enclosure had worked well for a year in 2002. The child had got to a point where he could sense an anxiety attack was about to come on, and would say simply: “I feel funny, I want to go to the garden.”

For whatever reason (it seemed to be some sort of communication or relationship breakdown between the school and the child’s guardians, the practices were no longer deemed appropriate.

Not necessarily advocating the “cage” thing, but just pointing out that it might be more complex than it seems.

Gareth
2022 years ago

I should also point out I have some affinity for the situation in that my 17 year old cousin is autistic. The family Christmas do is never easy.