School left teen with autism outside on a beanbag for a whole term to control difficult behaviour

Louise Milligan

A Melbourne school for children with intellectual disabilities is under investigation after being accused of making one of its students sit outside on a beanbag for more than an entire term as a way of dealing with his challenging behaviour.

Key points:

  • Victorian Government investigating after boy kept outside on beanbag
  • Day centre worker says children put in lockable 'coffin'
  • Claims whistleblowers punished for reporting abuse

A former teacher at the Merriang Special Development School spoke to 7.30 on condition of anonymity.

"I don't know how you can call yourself a teacher if that's what you're doing with a kid every day," John (not his real name) said.

He said he discovered the practice when he returned from long service leave and spoke to other staff members.

"They had said that he'd been in the yard for the entirety of term three," he said.

"And I said, what do you mean for the entirety of term three? They said, he'd come in in the morning and he would go outside, and he'd sit there for the six hours of the school day."

"Sometimes he would walk around the yard, but very rarely. Mostly just sitting on the beanbag — he might have had an iPad at times."

This had been going on for all of Term 3 and some of Term 4.

"Term 3, that's winter," John said.

"It just seemed so wrong that in 2015 in a suburb in Melbourne where we're in a ... five-year-old school where everyone's supposedly doing a good job, that that was the best solution that they could come up with addressing his behavioural needs."

A boy sitting outside in a beanbag at the Merriang Special Development School Photo: The student spent more than a term during winter outside on a beanbag.


John says a fellow teacher told him she documented the student's treatment in her work program.

"And I said, what is management saying about this? And she said that's their way of treating it, and I'm not going to rock the boat."

The fear that he would also be targeted for calling out abuse also meant that John did not report the incident through official channels.

He was on his third one-year contract and felt powerless to act.

He left the school soon after and has now quit teaching entirely out of disillusionment over what he saw.

'It shouldn't have happened. How many other kids has it happened to?'

The boy's mother was unaware that her son was constantly sitting outside at school.

She only found out from a teacher, not John, and another aide during the last week of the school year.

"It was the talk of the school, but I found out too late," she said.

"It just shouldn't be happening. It shouldn't have happened. How many other kids has it happened to? How many will it happen to?

"And they just act like there's nothing wrong with it. Like it's OK. It's not OK."

Education department instructed to investigate

After being approached about the allegation by 7.30, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the allegations were "concerning" and said he had asked his department to commission an independent review of the matter.

"All students, including those with special needs, should have access to fair, safe and inclusive schools," he said.

A statement from the Education Department outlined the school's position but said all complaints were taken seriously.

"As part of his behaviour support plan, the student could access a quiet and calm space outside the classroom when he needed time away from the rest of the class. This space was in clear sight and able to be monitored by staff at all times," he said.

"The school became concerned that the student was withdrawing from educational activities too frequently and appointed a full-time dedicated education support worker in term four to work one-on-one with the student, leading to improved engagement with educational and social activities."

"The Department takes any issues raised about students with disabilities in its care very seriously and will commission an independent review into the details of this incident."

Children put in lockable 'coffin'

The lockable box Karen Burgess called "the coffin". Photo: The lockable box Karen Burgess called "the coffin".


Karen Burgess used to manage a day centre for children with autism, ASPECT Heatherton, in Melbourne's south east.

But she only stayed for three months because she says she was horrified by what she saw.

The worst was a lockable box she called the "coffin".

"I was told that the box was for the purpose of putting clients in," she told 7.30.

"The person who told me was a team leader."

"I said, how do you get the clients in the box? And he made a shoving, pushing motion. As if he was mimicking pushing somebody in the box."

"And he doesn't seem to be at all remotely affected by the fact that he's doing this. That for me was an absolutely horrifying moment."

Karen Burgess Photo: Karen Burgess was sacked less than an hour after lodging a formal complaint about the treatment of students


Ms Burgess dismantled the box and notified ASPECT head office.

The box was taken away and two staff removed.

But Ms Burgess said it was only one of many disturbing incidents she witnessed.

"Clients being grabbed by their wrists, clients being left in their urine, medication being shoved down people's throats, or then, medication not being given," she said.

"I saw yelling, screaming, clients locked outside, sometimes they could have been locked outside all day and unattended, clients being called and referred to as f***ers."

Sacked after making official complaint

She says she reported it all to ASPECT, almost on a daily basis. But she did not feel the complaints were being effectively dealt with.

"My manager said all disability organisations, there is abuse. And if I can't handle the abuse, maybe I need to consider my position in the disability industry."

Karen Burgess went on sick leave.

In July last year, she took her concerns outside the organisation and made a complaint to Victoria's Disability Services Commissioner, who immediately contacted ASPECT.

The response from ASPECT was almost immediate, but not the one Ms Burgess was expecting.

"About 57 minutes after that conversation, I was fired in an email," she said.

When approached about Ms Burgess' allegations, Aspect's chief executive Adrian Ford said: "There have been five independent external investigations into Ms Burgess' allegations. All have cleared Aspect of wrong-doing".

Ms Burgess' claims make up one of 150 submissions to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into autism.

Inquiry chair Maree Edwards said whistleblowers in the sector often faced a culture of cover-up where they were "punished for reporting abuse".

"That's not acceptable any more," she said.

"This is abuse and it needs to be called out for what it is and it needs to be addressed for what it is."