Government investigates 246 reports of abuse of disabled children in NSW schools

mother, child and father walking down a road

Georgina Marker-North said it appeared her son Thomas was strapped
to restraint chairs at school "probably at least every day, probably for
hours a day". Photo: 7.30/ABC

Andrew Taylor

A leading advocate for children with disabilities has accused the NSW government of failing to properly investigate allegations of child abuse.

David Roy, a lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, said teachers feared losing their jobs if they report mistreatment, while abusers were protected.

"Any decent human being should know you do not lock children in darkened cupboards," he said. "You do not split children's faces open, you do not sit on children of four years old, and then twist their arms as they scream in pain. The teachers and teachers' aides who do this are a minority but are being protected."

Mr Roy's criticism follow revelations that the NSW Department of Education is investigating 246 cases of alleged mistreatment of disabled children in NSW state schools, the ABC's 7.30 reported on Monday,

The allegations of abuse, committed in the past two years, include an assistant principal kneeing a male student in the back to force him into a "time-out" room, a female teacher having a sexual relationship with a Year 7 male student and a scripture teacher smacking a Year 3 student across the face.

The abuse allegations are contained in a government document obtained by the ABC's 7.30 under Freedom of Information laws.

The document outlines the initial allegation made to the department, and further states that such matters may prove to be of a lesser nature following an investigation.

"There are cases where children are being dragged across playgrounds, heads being hit into walls, locked into cupboards, arms twisted, kids screaming out in pain, being physically assaulted ..." Mr Roy told reporter Brigid Glanville.Austin Franks, with mother Caroline, was pulled out of his school after his parents discovered boxing pads were used to ...

Austin Franks, with mother Caroline, was pulled out of his school after his parents discovered boxing pads were used to move him around. Photo: 7.30/ABC

The 7.30 program featured two autistic children whose parents expressed concern about their treatment in NSW state schools.

Caroline Franks said she called Pennant Hills High School after her teenage son, who has autism, is non-verbal and has an intellectual disability, came home covered in blood.

The chairs used to restrained Thomas Marker-North.

The chairs used to restrained Thomas Marker-North. Photo: 7.30/ABC

After the school failed to provide an explanation, Austin's parents employed a psychology student, Tanya Shenoy, to observe their 15-year-old in the classroom.

Ms Franks told Fairfax Media her son was in a support unit for students with disability within the school.

Over a two-month period, Ms Shenoy witnessed staff and students using the boxing pads to move him around. She said she was shocked that teachers were not helping him with school work.

"They kind of treated him like he was an animal and not like a child, it was very sad," she said.

In another case, an autistic child was strapped to restraining chairs at Manning Gardens Public School at Taree on the NSW mid-north coast.

Thomas Marker-North's mother, Georgina, said it appeared her son was strapped in the chairs "probably at least every day, probably for hours a day".

"It's something we thought was happening in the '70s and went away in the '70s and we don't hear about it any more. Since this has happened I've discovered it's quite common," Ms Marker-North told 7.30.

The NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes told 7.30 he had instructed his department to to review its procedures and provide additional training to teachers.

Mr Stokes said he would personally call Austin's family to "help resolve the situation", but Ms Franks said on Monday she was yet to be contacted by the minister.

Labor's Education spokesman Jihab Dib said: "What we've seen there very clearly is an absolute failure from the department and this government from addressing students who are most vulnerable and in the most need."

Mr Roy said serious abuse cases were not properly investigated by the department.

"The problem seems to be that the Department of Education and the previous minister, Adrian Piccoli, have appeared to be more interested in protecting the system rather than dealing with the most vulnerable," he said.

Fairfax Media reported in May that a NSW parliamentary inquiry into students with a disability or special needs had heard harrowing accounts of the abuse of children with disability in NSW state schools including an 11-year-old girl with autism and a moderate intellectual disability who was "indecently assaulted" by boys in her class.

The inquiry was told many parents choose home education because schools do not adequately cater to their children's needs.

Fairfax Media also reported in May that a survey of principals in south-western Sydney revealed concerns that classrooms were unsafe for children and teachers because of a lack of support and resources to teach children with disabilities or special needs.

A parent of a child with multiple disabilities told the inquiry that CCTV should be installed in classrooms to ensure the safety of children - a suggestion supported by Mr Roy.

One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson, meanwhile, provoked outrage from disability advocates after telling the Senate in June that children with disabilities should be removed from mainstream classrooms because they were putting a strain on teachers and schools.

Mr Roy said: "How can we celebrate the quality staff in public education, how can we raise standards and have a strong public education system until we protect children and remove the bad apples damaging children everywhere?"