Child placed in cage: Canberra parents says schools can't cope with special needs students

 Chief Assembly reporter for The Canberra Times.

News of a cage-like structure being used to constrain a Canberra school child has come as no surprise to some parents, who say their children have also been poorly treated by the system.

Leigh O'Neill said her son, now in year 12, had been locked in a room with no furniture or windows when he was at primary school, sometimes for hours at a time.

He had since been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger's syndrome, but at primary school, aged about seven, the school had suggested treatment for ADHD, resulting in her son spending 18 months medicated with Ritalin. When he was particularly disruptive in class, he would be put in a room near the front office with no handle on the inside, so he couldn't get out.

"I didn't know that this was going on, he came home and said he was punished for being naughty or whatever," she said. "After several times I worked out what was going on."

When she found out, she had complained to the directorate, but the school denied her version of events and she never received a satisfactory outcome. Things had improved for her son after she got a diagnosis and support, but she wants to see more support for children with special needs, especially for those whose disability is not severe enough to warrant a special school.

"There has to be some alternative to locking them in a room or a cage," she said.

Mrs O'Neill's story has not been verified by the education directorate.

Another parent, who didn't want to be identified, said her foster child had been put in a "padlocked fenced area next to the staff room" in a Canberra primary school on several occasions when he had been violent.

"I do not believe this is done initially to be punitive to the child but to provide safety for both the other children, staff and the child involved," she said. "When my boy was put here I was disgusted. However he told me he feels safe from the other children there."

The boy was deeply traumatised from his time in care and needed extra support, she said.

A third parent said his daughter, who had special needs, had absconded from a Tuggeranong school at lunchtime two years ago, aged 6, without anyone noticing, despite it being a secure, gated school. A teacher had come across the child in a school carpark near a busy road 10 or 15 minutes later.

He had sent his daughter to a mainstream school after being advised to do so, but had found minimal support, a lack of understanding among some staff about how to deal with children with special needs, and "a lack of responsiveness" from the school. He had since withdrawn his daughter, who was now back in a special needs school.

"The system is failing children with special needs, outside the specialist school, there can be no real mainstream integration of kids with special needs until more teachers available and learning support staff available in schools," the parent, who did not want to be identified, said.

"A lot of the time, particularly with children who are high functioning in many areas but do have some level of disability, they try to push them into the mainstream school, but there's not the set up for them."