School locked autistic children in dark room, parents claim

AUTISTIC children have been repeatedly locked in a darkened room for up to 20 minutes for misbehaving at a special school, staff and parents claim.

Seven parents have come forward with the allegations and two are pursuing separate court actions against Marnebek School in Cranbourne East over restraint, seclusion and other issues.

Staff have told the Herald Sun that terrified children would put up a fight when being led into the “time out” room, while other disciplinary tactics have included teachers sitting on unruly students.

Among other allegations reported to the Education ­Department are staff leading children around on wrist straps, physically restraining students who won’t sit still and locking children in an ­outdoor courtyard alone as punishment.

Cranbourne mother Rebecca Cobb, 37, said she found her tearstained autistic son, then nine, lying on the floor of the bare room with a bloodied nose.

“He was extremely upset, he had been crying and he looked petrified,’’ said Mrs Cobb, who is taking legal action through the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In letters seen by the Herald Sun, parents raised their concerns with the Education Department in January about the incidents between 2010-12, and called for an investigation.

The school and the department have denied the parents’ ­allegations, saying children were always supervised and never locked away.

The Education Department said that it was satisfied with the school’s “current practices’’, and that staff always put student safety first.

Disability advocate Julie Phillips, who is representing the parents, accused the ­Government and school of a cover-up.

Another parent, Chris Scandolera, who has made a complaint to the AHRC over the treatment of his autistic son, said he saw multiple other children put in the “time out’’ room and being led around on harnesses.

A Narre Warren mother, who can’t be identified, is suing the Government in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on the grounds of discrimination against her non-verbal autistic son in 2011-12.

In a statement, principal Karen Dauncey said the school was “very caring’’ and staff were highly trained in dealing with students with a range of disabilities.

“We have never had caged areas, and we do not punish children by isolating them,’’ she said.