The media has been full of stories of children with special needs being abused in schools, by teachers, aides, or other students. Each story is more disturbing than the last, with distraught parents threatening lawsuits and criminal charges. How is it that a place parents trust, where they send their child in good faith, hoping to get them the help they need, can turn into a place of abuse and cruelty?
The truth of the matter is that most people who choose a career working with special needs children are kind, wonderful people who truly want to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, people on this career path also tend to be underpaid, undertrained, and under-supported by the school system at large. This, of course, is not an excuse for abuse, and most teachers and staff do a truly admirable job with the limited resources they have. Are there any steps schools can take to weed out the bad apples, and to support the quality teachers and staff to the best of their abilities?
Quality training for teachers and staff is key. Children with developmental disabilities like autism often have challenging behaviors, and teachers need to know safe, effective ways to respond. It is important for teachers and staff to understand that challenging behaviors are usually a way for a child with autism to communicate. If the cause of the child’s distress can be determined and remedied, the challenging behavior will be reduced or disappear. The Autism Society of America can guide professionals working with children with autism to local trainings and resources to educate them on safe, effective ways to deal with challenging behaviors.
Parents should also be vigilant, and have the right to request a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) for their child if there are problem behaviors at school. This would entail a third-party professional to observe your child at school, to determine when the behaviors are taking place, and to create a plan to avoid or to deal with the behaviors. The plan would be discussed at your child’s IEP meeting, and would outline what consequences teachers and staff are allowed to use with your child when challenging behaviors occur. This would prevent the school from using techniques you find aversive.
Techniques such as restraint and seclusion have received a lot of media attention recently. In 2009, a Government Accountability Office study documented 20 deaths of school age children from unsafe restraint and seclusion techniques, and countless other children have suffered injuries from these procedures. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Congressman Gregg Harper (R-MS) introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act (KSS) HR#1893, which would limit the use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations where physical harm is imminent. This bill is supported by the Autism Society of America, along with 200 other national, state, and local organizations.
No parent should have to worry about the safety of their child at school. With better training and clear guidelines, hopefully we will see fewer stories of abuse in the media.