The first day of the inaugural hearings for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability started with a horrifying opening statement from Counsel Assisting about physical and verbal abuse directed at students with disability.
Commissioner Ronald Sackville AO QC stated himself at the start of the day that, “We have selected education as the first topic for a hearing because of its obvious importance for the life experiences of children and adults with disability.”
Counsel Assisting, Dr Kerri Mellifont QC, says this round of hearings will “shine a light on the very real and pervasive issues that students with disabilities and their parents and carers can face in the education system.”
The current submissions “paint the very real and stark picture that in many places persons with disabilities are not receiving equity in their education”.
Counsel Assisting provided exerts of submissions to the Commission, including a story from a Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) submission about a ten year old child with Asperger Syndrome who was removed from a private school by her parents due to the severity of bullying.
This bullying escalated to a point of the girl hiding in a bin from her bullies, suffering anxiety from vicious rumours, black eyes and other physical injuries, and was even pushed off a pier.
Counsel Assisting described education as a “key enabler of other rights”, like work, politics, housing and access to justice.
“All children have the right to an education. This is a time critical right. We as a society
have a relatively small window of opportunity to get this right,” says Counsel Assisting Mellifont.
Counsel Assisting Mellifont also outlined the way students with disability often experience violence and neglect, which is often in an education setting.
Almost half of children with disability are denied opportunities to participate in school excursions and activities and evidence has shown abuse is most likely to occur in segregated environments, says Counsel Assisting Mellifont.
Schools with same funding and curriculum, totally different environments
The first witness to provide evidence to the Commission, Witness AAA, explained the education journey their 13 year old daughter has traversed.
Witness AAA’s daughter has Down syndrome and a vision impairment, among other things, and had moved schools a number of times to find appropriate education with a safe environment.
At one primary school, AAA described a time their daughter was excluded from the general curriculum and was only provided colouring books to keep her occupied and was not seen as an “authentic learner”.
The school kept AAA out of the loop with what activities were going on in the school, like swimming carnivals, and AAA would have to go out of their way to get permission forms and to get their daughter to school activities.
AAA was only informed through other parents who let them know what was happening at the school.
Over time, it became very exhausting for AAA to keep up, saying she had to “pick my battles.”
In Grade 2 at the primary school, AAA’s daughter was screamed at, yelled at and excluded from activities by her Grade 2 teacher.
AAA’s daughter’s behaviour was completely different at home, it took her 12 months to recover from the trauma of that class. AAA says their daughter was petrified of her teacher.
Soon after, AAA removed their daughter from the school and placed her in a new school, the family saw a dramatic difference.
“It was a totally different experience. The leadership in the school was supported, they were experienced, they were welcoming. One of the teachers said to me early in her enrolment there that, “we want your experience, as in your family experience, at this school to be the same as everyone else’s,” says AAA.
“They don’t look at the child as a problem. They look at how they can adjust or modify what’s required for that child to engage in education.”
AAA just wants their daughter to be able to reach her full potential during her schooling and after she leaves school.
“I want the only limits to be on her life the same as everyone else. If we don’t include kids in the education system, how can we include them in the community, in the workplace?” says AAA.
“Kids need to be with their peers who are then going to be their workmates or their university colleagues or TAFE colleagues or apprenticeship colleagues. It’s really important that my daughter’s known in her community and sits alongside her peers in her community.
“Students with disabilities have the right to an education in their community, not somewhere else but where they live. On the same basis as their peers with access to the curriculum and appropriate adjustments. They need to be seen as authentic learners.”
“They probably don’t know”
A small panel of advocacy and inclusive education organisations gave evidence to the Commission about what they are seeing occur in schools across Queensland, including segregation and abuse from both teachers and other students.
Dr Lisa Bridle, Senior Consultant at Community Resource Unit Ltd, and Deborah Wilson, Chief Executive Officer at Independent Advocacy North Queensland, discussed gate-keeping at schools and children treated inhumanely. Dr Bridle says when children are physically assaulted by a teacher, or someone similar, often the Community Resource Unit will receive an excuse from the principal, or upper management, that the child “probably don’t know” they were hit.
She says it perpetuates a myth that children with disability aren’t aware about what is happening around them.
When parents go to police because of physical abuse, often police cannot investigate further because “students with, particularly intellectual, disability are in the same situation that they are in many areas of our legal system where they’re not considered reliable witnesses, the presumption is with the adults.”
Often students with disability are left off school lists
Dr Bridle refers back to AAA’s evidence, saying the experiences of segregation in schools is a very common occurrence, especially with being left off school lists or not being included in activities or school excursions.
“Small slights that end up being deeply devaluing,” says Dr Bridle.
Gatekeeping is another way schools stop a child with disability entering a school, which Dr Bridle describes as restricting access of a child to education or making up excuses as to why they can’t accept a child with disability as a student, including funding or expenses.
While there is a new Inclusion Education Policy in place in Queensland, Dr Bridle says many schools are still not complying with the new policy still.
“I don’t think all principals are necessarily complying with that… There has been a shift, but sometimes it then translates to other practices which are far from fully inclusive, like the suggestion of part-time hours,” says Dr Bridle.
“When people are able to push past the barrier, they can have a very positive experience, but my concern would be that not every family can advocate for themselves and most people, in my experience, feel deeply reluctant to send their child to a place where they don’t feel their child will be welcomed.”
Restraint practices are being utilised in school
Treatment in classes was also a big topic with Dr Bridle describing multiples cases where a child with disability had been given a dog mat to sit on in the classroom in case the child wet themselves.
She says that when one parent experiencing this raised concern about the treatment of their child, the teacher made the parent feel she was being neurotic.
She also highlighted that a common problem in aged care, the use of restrictive practices is also becoming a problem in schools, with many teachers using physical restrictions on children with disability.
Dr Bridle described makeshift sensory rooms, which she described as cupboards and were “a pen that you would hold an animal in”. Other cases involved children left on their own on a tennis court or courtyard, or a child restrained by being wedged in a seat unable to move.
Dr Bridle added that some principals have told parents that their child couldn’t attend school unless they were chemically restrained for behaviour.
Parents send children to “special schools” as last resort
Many families end up turning to “special schools” due to their treatment in the public or private school system, however, Dr Bridle says as long as “special schools” exist, there will always be a threat of exclusion.
“Inclusion isn’t easy so things will get tough. I think it reinforces a myth that special places are the right places for people with disability, and it’s a theft of resources that are best placed in the regular school system,” says Dr Bridle.
“I would like to see a transfer of funding from the special education system into regular schooling, so that no child in a regular school is told that they cannot go on camp, there [is] not the funding for triangular pencils, or all the other things that are told to parents.”
The next Disability Royal Commission hearing will continue on November 5, and will run until November 7.