Probe ordered into claim primary school held student with autism in small plywood room

portrait of Emily Dive
Emily Dive speaks to ABC 7:30 Report


LAUREN DAY: For Lachlan Murrell's family, every day is a battle. 

EMILY DIVE: Do you want us to wait inside while you head outside? 


LAUREN DAY: But the daily struggles are nothing compared to the bigger fight on his mum's hands. 

How would you describe your experience of trying to get him an education? 

EMILY DIVE: It is the hardest thing that I have done for him and I didn't think that it would be as much of a battle as what it was or still is. 

LAUREN DAY: Lachlan has autism, he has been bounced around three different schools which struggle to deal with him. 

EMILY DIVE: Lachlan has never attended a full day of school. Lachlan was only funded for two hours a day for an integration aide and the department for most of that has said he can only go for those two hours. 

There has been exclusion, seclusion and isolation. 

LAUREN DAY: At one school his mother says he was held in a two metre square plywood enclosure built for him inside the resources room with no windows and just a peep hole through the door. 

At the last school he was expelled after biting a teacher. 

The eight-year-old hasn't set foot in a classroom for a year. 

What impact do you think that has had on him? 

EMILY DIVE: He has no self-esteem. He has no self-worth. He has no identity as a student. 

Socially, he has missed out on a lot of opportunities and obviously academically as well. 

LAUREN DAY: His mum says Lachlan's intelligence testing shows he is well above the IQ limit for special schools and she wants to keep him in the mainstream system. 

She recently lodged a discrimination complaint against the Education Department with the Australian Human Rights Commission, saying Lachlan was isolated and excluded and wasn't given the support he needed to stay in school. 

LACHLAN MURRELL: That is an E, that's an E, mum. 

LAUREN DAY: The Education Department said it was reviewing her claims but couldn't comment while the case was before the commission. 

But the Victorian Education Minister revealed to 7.30 he has ordered an independent investigation into the matter. 

Do you think the education system failed Lachlan? 

EMILY DIVE: Absolutely. I feel like they have destroyed him. They have definitely broken me and I would never wish it upon any other child. 

LAUREN DAY: Lachlan Murrell's case is not the only one. 7.30 has seen 10 complaints lodged by parents with the Human Rights Commission in the Federal Court claiming discrimination against students with disabilities. 

They include claims of restricted attendance, where students are not allowed to stay at school for the whole day, failure to stop bullying and provide adequate support staff and disturbingly, physical restraint and seclusion. 

JULIE PHILLIPS, DISABILITY ADVOCATE: It reflects a system that is broken but departments of education don't seem to be willing to engage in fixing these situations and so we continue to have discrimination complaints instead of change. 

LAUREN DAY: Julie Phillips believes state governments prefer to defend the existing system in the courts rather than fix it. 

Like many other disability advocates she was outraged by One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson's recent comments in Parliament on the issue. 

PAULINE HANSON, ONE NATION LEADER: These kids have a right to an education by all means but if there is a number of them, these children should actually go into a special classroom, looked after and given that special attention. 

LAUREN DAY: Do you think any of the parents of kids in Lachie's class would have shared her opinions on that? 

EMILY DIVE: I would say yes. Having said that though, if it was asked, if the children were asked, they are all just friends, those needs don't even come into play. 

Every child at one point has been disruptive in a classroom. 

LAUREN DAY: Julie Phillips hopes the controversy will lead to something positive, like more resourcing and better training for teachers to understand disability. 

JULIE PHILLIPS: I would hope that the conversation that we are having now strikes a cord with departments of education because they tend to ignore all the evidence that their system is broken. 

They need to deal with the evidence that the system is broken and instead of thinking about what shall we do with these kids and where shall we put them, concentrate more on resourcing the schools. 

LAUREN DAY: This is what inclusive education looks like when it is working. 

At Fitzroy High Johnny Cash calls the kids to class. 

TEACHER: Tomorrow we will have the opening night for the exhibition. 

LAUREN DAY: Year 11 student Adam Dickson has autism. 

He is a young man of few words but his disability hasn't stopped him from learning at a mainstream school. 

STEPHANIE GOTLIB, CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY AUSTRALIA: From the get-go this school has been very much around how are we going to go about this together in terms of ensuring that Adam can access his education like every other student here. 

LAUREN DAY: Adam studies a modified curriculum. As well as a full-time aid he has a team of health professionals who work with the school. 

His mum says he is lucky to be learning. 

In her role as an advocate she hears from hundreds of families who are struggling to access education in a system she describes as in crisis. 

STEPHANIE GOTLIB: Adam's experience is the exception and let's be very clear here, his education experiences have still been riddled with compromise. 

LAUREN DAY: Around 90 per cent of the roughly 300,000 children with disabilities in Australia go to mainstream schools. 

Education Professor Roger Slee says that is where they belong. 

PROFESSOR ROGER SLEE, UNIVERSITY OF SA: Their academic progress is stronger. Their transitions into work and further education is more likely and they are more likely to take up positions in the work force and live an independent life. 

LAUREN DAY: Research also shows that students without disabilities often benefit as well. 

ROGER SLEE: The teachers start to become more creative, more innovative in the way in which they think about how they do their teaching so there are academic benefits but there are also social benefits. 

Children in inclusive classrooms learn about the real nature of the world and the real nature is that difference is ordinary. 

LAUREN DAY: Emily Dive believes the schools that failed to support her son are missing out, but his loss of an education will be harder to live with. 

What will happen now with Lachlan? 

EMILY DIVE: I don't know. I don't like to think about that. I would hope that he will still get an education. 

How that may look, I don't know. 

He definitely still wants to learn and for as long as he has that will, I will keep fighting. 

Great work, well done.