Ask anyone working in the field of education in Australia and they will tell you that we are very caring and inclusive in our policies and approach to educating our children including those with additional needs.
There have been however, too many horrendous headlines of late regarding the abuse of children with autism in our schools. In Victoria alone, 150 submissions have been made to a Parliamentary enquiry into autism.
There is no excuse that can justify what is going on; that children are being locked in boxes, cages or in secluded playgrounds, that they are being left outside of classrooms all term on a beanbag, whatever the variation on this theme, it is wrong, wrong, wrong.
An outcry from the community is heard when such allegations hit the headlines, but a day or two later, the public appears to lose interest. These alleged incidents are not occurring in one particular sector, they have occurred in schools from the public system and also from specialist schools run by autism service providers such as ASPECT, which by their own definition claim they are “Australia’s largest service provider for people on the autism spectrum with specialised, evidence informed school programs…”
To all of those schools involved, enough – this is unacceptable.
The ABC’s 7.30 report on the 31st of August put the spotlight on 2 particular incidents, and the response from the Victorian Education Minister James Merlino was that the “allegations were concerning” and he had asked his department to commission an independent investigation. All students he stated “including those with special needs, should have access to fair, safe and inclusive schools”. Yes Minister, they do, but unfortunately, that is not their reality, and such events keep recurring.
In contrast, the CEO of ASPECT, choosing not to appear on the program, stated that ASPECT had been cleared of wrongdoing and this was “old news”. Parents of children entrusted into the care of this organization deserve more than this comment. They also deserve to hear firm and absolute reassurance that this is unacceptable and will not happen again.
Due to ASPECT’s perceived indifference and lack of accountability following the airing of the 7.30 report, Autism Awareness Australia has publicly called for the resignation of the CEO of ASPECT.
When organisations such as Autism Awareness Australia make such a call, it’s time for all of us to take notice.
I would like to ask the following questions:
Where were the other teachers, educators and members of staff at these institutions where the abuse took place? In staying quiet, these people are complicit in the abuse.
Why was Karen Burgess the ‘whistle blower’ at the ASPECT school dismissed? Should she not have been applauded for being an advocate for those in her care?
Are these repeated incidents of abuse resulting from a lack of funding, education, or training? From my experience it is a combination of all of these factors. However in ASPECT’s case, they are a provider of education in the autism space and they receive significant funding.
So what is the issue? I believe it is an issue of apathy, complacency and plain disinterest.
The schools aren’t given the priority they deserve. It is time that we raised our collective voices and insisted on the basic rights of safety and education for all children. The legislation is in place but it takes more than legislation. It takes funding and education, coupled with a genuine willingness and desire to ensure that our children receive the education and care they not only have a right to but also deserve.
As a nation, we have failed our most vulnerable children. The United Nations has been asked to investigate several incidents that have taken place in Australian schools. How did we let it get this far? “The request, which was sent to the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, said that half of these students were physically restrained at school, where staff held or sat on them. The cases were collected by six groups including Autistic Family Collective, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, United Voices for People with Disabilities and disability advocate Julie Phillips”.
As a nation, we must speak up and be the voice for those who have no voice. A parliamentary inquiry into the provision of education for students with a disability or special needs in NSW has been announced and it’s our duty to contribute to this inquiry.
It’s time to stand up for our children – all of our children!