By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent
New Department of Education guidelines expected by next summer will tell schools that physically restraining or secluding children must not be used as disciplinary measures.
It said it has been working on the guidance for the past year after Inclusion Ireland yesterday detailed disturbing instances of children with a disability being injured and traumatised by staff practices in mainstream and special schools.
The organisation which advocates for people with disabilities said that, despite previous requests by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the Department of Education had failed to provide best-practice guidelines to introduce guidelines or to introduce reporting and monitoring protocols.
In their absence, said Inclusion Ireland, the scale of the problem remains unknown and children’s developmental and welfare needs are being neglected. It said it is unfair on teachers when best practice includes support and training for staff.
A seminar on the issue yesterday discussed the Inclusion Ireland report that features 14 anonymised case studies of cases outlined by parents of their children being restrained, or isolated in rooms without supervision and often left injured as a result. One parent said the restraint and seclusion her son suffered at school included being locked in a toilet when he was six.
Inclusion Ireland chief executive Paddy Connolly said the event was a chance for education professionals and parents to pressurise Education Minister Richard Bruton and his department to address the issue.
The department told the Irish Examiner that guidelines it expects to complete by the end of the school year would help schools respond to specific circumstances where a student poses an immediate threat of harm to themselves or others.
“The guidelines will be underpinned by the principles that such intervention is never used for the purposes of discipline, and that it should be applied proportionately and should last only as long as is necessary to de-escalate the situation,” said a spokesperson.
The importance of continued supervision of children during a crisis period, including matters related to behaviour, will also be stressed. The department also expects the guidelines will underline the importance of recording such incidents and how they were managed.
It said Inclusion Ireland and all relevant stakeholders will be consulted.
The NCSE has raised the issues on the need for guidelines regarding crisis situations, restraint, and seclusion in schools with the department a number of times since 2012. It said it looks forward to new guidelines, but emphasised that challenging or violent behaviour is a broader issue rather than linked solely to special educational needs.
The department said guidance already exists that advises schools not to use specialised behaviour management strategies like restraint without expert advice, training, and monitoring. Schools also have guidelines that already tell them leaving students unsupervised is an inappropriate sanction.
These are some of the stories told by parents to Inclusion Ireland about restraint and inclusion. The children’s names and any other identifying features have been changed.
Expelled for trying to escape room
“Killian was locked into a small storage room with a small window. We were initially told the room would only ever be used as a ‘last resort’.
"Killian was expelled for trying to escape from the room and was so traumatised that he was out of school for 18 months. We received great therapeutic support that helped Killian to get back into a new school. He has never been locked up in his new school. Our family were so upset that this issue was not taken seriously by Tusla or the DES.
"When I asked Tusla to investigate the incident the social worker told me ‘we do not investigate schools; only parents’.”
Black and blue
“One day I went to collect Brian from his special school and he was sitting on the sofa in reception crying. His arms were very sore and staff would not tell me what happened.
"Later Brian calmed down and could tell me two special needs assistants had held him face down on the floor by his arms which were now black and blue. Even though there was CCTV in the school they could not provide it to me as it had ‘self-erased’. Both of us were so upset he could never go back to the school. After this incident, he suffered from panic attacks, depression and lost trust in all adults for a time. He even said he wanted to kill himself.”
Multiple use of prone restraint
“My daughter Jenny was restrained in a ‘prone restraint’ which is being held in a face-down position by two or three people. On one month this took place up to 50 times and this went on for some time. When I complained, I was met with the threat of Jenny’s expulsion. Eventually, I was asked to sign an Individual Education Plan that included permission for restraint; I refused and Jenny was suspended. We took and won an appeal but Jenny was then expelled before she could return to school. The Tusla were involved and said ‘there were no child protection concerns’ and there was ‘no excessive use of restraint’. The National Educational Psychological Service was very concerned but could do nothing about it. The Department of Education and Skills knew this was going on but did not intervene.”
Alone in a padded room
“Liam [now aged 9] was forcibly held and taken to a padded room where he was locked on his own, numerous times in his special school. One day I was even locked into the room when I went to get him out. Liam told me that when he is being brought into the room ‘my feet do not touch the ground’. On one day he had nail marks on his arm and on another day bruising which he said were caused by staff getting him into the room. He repeated all of this to Tusla who closed the case with no finding against the school. When I requested his file from school I was shocked to find he had been put into seclusion numerous times that I did not know about. Liam is now scared of school and has been out for a year.”
Secluded 40 times in one school year
“Matthew was forced into the ‘time out’ room 40 times in one school year. The ‘time out’ room meant that he was placed in a room alone and secluded. On two occasions that I am aware of, he was there for two hours. He was only 10 at the time.
"When I didn’t agree to this room I was expected to collect him from his special school. Phonecalls for collection would start from 9.10am.
"After all of this, he would cry a lot saying how he was not good enough.”