• Our most vulnerable children face abuse where they should be the safest - in special education.
What the education department doesn't want you to know: three families’ allegations into abuse of disabled children in special schools.
Friday, May 8, 2015 - 19:30

Michael*, 6, has autism and is largely non-verbal. He spent 18 months in a special class at South Kotara Public School near his home in the NSW Hunter Region, but his attendance came to a sudden end in late 2013 as his parents suspected physical abuse. He is now home-schooled.

It’s a terrible position to be in,” said his father, David. “We’ve had to fund everything ourselves and that’s a struggle.”

His family had no explanation for his change in behaviour until September of 2013, when Michael came home from school with an unexplained bruise on his arm. David took his son to hospital, where the doctor concluded that they could not have been inflicted by another child.

“It was adult finger marks, received from school” David said.

David believes his son was physically abused by a staff member at South Kotara, and the incident wasn’t isolated.

"There had been a whole build up of events happening. We had noticed bruising on him but we assumed it was probably a child,” he said.

The school has denied the allegations.

A few days before Michael’s bruising was discovered, Michael’s wife Anna* allegedly witnessed a teachers' aide screaming at a another non-verbal child; grabbing him, dragging him and forcing him to the ground by twisting his arm.

The school looked into the incident in 2013 and found no misconduct had occurred.  Those findings were reviewed by the NSW Education Department in 2015. The Department declined to be interviewed but in a statement told The Feed it was satisfied with the way the school handled the matter, and that there was no evidence the incident had occurred in the alleged manner.  This essentially meant the case was closed. David claimed he was not contacted as part of this investigation.

An excerpt from the letter reads: “Overall, it was not possible to clearly establish the cause of the bruising to Michael’s arm. Therefore, the Directorate will not take any further action.”

letter from Kotara South Public School
David was shocked at the response.

"Why?" he said. “That’s what we’ve been asking ever since. What was investigated? We weren’t contacted.”

Julie Phillips, a disability campaigner, believed these incidents are commonplace. Over the past four years she had become increasingly aware of abusive practices with disabled children in school. 

“The more you uncover and speak about it, the more people approach you. I guess I’ve now realised that it’s fairly endemic throughout Australia,” she said.

Mitchell, 13, has suffered through a similar experience in his home town of Bendigo, Victoria. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of seven, and since then has also been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (a disruptive behavior pattern of childhood and adolescence characterized by defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior especially toward adults in positions of authority) and dyslexia. An additional diagnosis of schizophrenia is now being considered.

His mother Mychelle said her son's experience in schools had been horrific, with him attending six different primary schools.

“We’ve had teachers that have been amazing, and we’ve had teachers that I class as teachers from hell,” Mychelle said.

Mychelle believed her son was physically abused by staff at two separate primary schools in Bendigo over a period of five years beginning in 2011. She alleged he has been tied to a chair, locked in small rooms, and repeatedly grabbed.

“I got told by parents, but on occasions I have gone to pick him up and he has been locked in rooms,” she said. “He had marks on his wrists and ankles but no one could explain why. Someone told me off the record that they had actually taped him to a chair to stop him from running.”

When she confronted the school, it denied the abuse.

Mychelle claimed he had serious and unmistakable marks from tape. She was unable to prove the incidents.

“It was your word against theirs, so not even a slap on the wrist,” she said.

Mychelle said it’s left her son emotionally damaged, andsaid  Mitchell suffered a serious relapse where he became suicidal, which she attributes to alleged abusive behavior from teachers.

“He is so broken that he feels like there is nowhere else to go,” she said. “Some days it’s hard. He’s standing there begging you to end his life because he thinks it would be so much better. People just don’t get it.”

Mitchell does not speak much of the abuse. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he said. “I’d rather just close it up, and over time I forget about it.”

Julie Phillips said the degree of damage cannot be underestimated. “The impact is extremely serious.  Some of these children have been subjected to restraint and seclusion multiple times before they have even left primary school,” she said.

Mychelle currently cared for Mitchell full-time, but said that brought its own problems. “The longer that he’s with me 24/7, the worse the anxiety separation gets,” she said.

Mitchell’s conditions meant he was prone to difficult and at-times violent behaviour. Two months ago, he and his mother were forced to leave their family home following one of Mitchell’s outbursts.  They have since been living in a caravan park.

Mychelle felt their situation was desperate but does not know of other options. “It’s not an option to say, 'Sorry, I can’t do this anymore, you’re on your own'. He’s 13. He's a child who needs his parent.“

She’s sought to secure a place for Mitchell at a local special school that he’s keen to attend. The school required an IQ of between 50 and 70. Mitchell’s is only just higher. She has letters of reference from his psychiatrist, psychologists andthe Department of Human Services among others involved with Mitchell’s care, all stipulating that it would be the best environment for him. Despite these recommendations, officials from the Department of Education have told her it was unlikely he’ll get in, so no formal application has been made.

There are other special schools in Bendigo, one of which The Feed can now reveal is at the centre of serious allegations of abuse, the Bendigo Special Developmental School. Bendigo SDS has 75 staff that cater to 132 students with a range of intellectual and physical disabilities. 

Phillip Carroll worked as a teacher at Bendigo SDS for five years between 2006 and 2011. He claimed that during his time at the school, there were cages put in classrooms.

“It was probably four feet by four feet and maybe four or five feet high,” he said. “One student was in there for a lot of the time, because if he was allowed to let loose running around he’d be vomiting on other children or biting other children."

He said abuse at the school was commonplace, and he witnessed students being bitten, kicked and made immobile by the use of pressure points, by staff.

“We were taught to put our fingers just in behind the ears, “he said. “There is a pressure point where you just lift them up. If they fight you it hurts like hell, so they lift up to relieve the pain and you just pick them up.”

He also alleged that to prevent autistic children from running away, they were instructed to push children's arm behind their back and into their shoulder blades - a common police restraining technique - to march them back in to class.

Julie Hommlehoff, the principal of BSDS since 2010, categorically denies these allegations.

“They’re unfounded," she said. "Our school is a very good school, it’s a very active school, and we have lots of community input. We know what’s happening in our school. The atmosphere, the caring community that we have  - it's probably what brings you to work every day.”

She denied that pressure points were used or that the staff were trained in their use.

"They’re a very dedicated staff. We do not use pressure points. That's unfounded."

Phillip Carroll was fired from Bendigo SDS in 2011.

According to the Victorian Department of Education, he "was found to have undertaken a series of physical actions against students that were completely inappropriate, including the inappropriate use of restraint."

There was an international appeal, but his termination was upheld.

"I restrained students," Phil said. "It was written in to their behaviour management plans."

He claimed the practices he was fired for were condoned.

During the filming of this story, The Feed was contacted by the parents of a child named Patrick* who is currently enrolled at Bendigo SDS. They wished to remain anonymous, but they made a statement that they believe a staff member used pressure points on their son in October 2014.

Apart from the staff member and their non-verbal child, there was only one other witness, a man named Denis Kelly who was working as casual support staff at the time.

Denis claimed that after he and the accused worker took Patrick and another child to the gymnasium, Patrick assumed a position on the floor and didn’t want to move. Denis said what happened next shocked him, claiming that the ES worker asked Denis if he knew how to use pressure points, and demonstrated on Patrick.

“I definitely knew that he felt pain,” Denis said. “And she said, 'We use this when we have to, and it works with good effect'."

The following week he claimed he reported what he’d seen to Hommlehoff, who he said seemed shocked but reassured him she would investigate and talk to the staff member involved.

The following is an excerpt from the interview between the reporter and Hommlehoff:

"REPORTER: When that complaint came in in October of last year I believe it was, what sort of steps did you take to act on it?

HOMMLEHOFF: It doesn’t matter what complaint comes through, we have a complaints procedure. I would follow that thoroughly.

REPORTER: And what is that?

HOMMLEHOFF: Whatever comes forth you investigate and I would follow our complaints policy to do that.

REPORTER: But I’m taking about that specific incident that happened.

HOMMLEHOFF: Any incident.

REPORTER: But I’m asking you about that specific incident.

HOMMLEHOFF: And I’m saying to you any incident that comes forward I would thoroughly investigate it.   

REPORTER: Can you tell us the ways in which you would investigate?

HOMMLEHOFF: I can tell you that I have thoroughly investigated things, it’s unfounded.

REPORTER: Why aren’t you able to tell me the ways in which you investigated it?

HOMMLEHOFF: Because I’m not able to discuss individual cases."

Denis claimed he received an email from Hommlehoff which stated: “I remain satisfied that your allegations regarding the use of pressure points are unfounded.”

“I thought, 'How dare they? How dare they lie?'" he said. “It feels like a smear campaign where I’ve fabricated the entire story. It’s quote offensive when people say what I’ve stated isn’t true, because it was for no benefit for myself.

“People could be perpetrating these types of procedures because the child is non-verbal and has low functioning autism. He doesn’t say anything. He’s not going to write down an account of what happened. He’s not going to appear in court and say, 'This person did that'. He has no voice. If I can’t be his voice, who can?”

The Feed understands the staff member still works at Bendigo SDS.

Denis believed that the teachers were stuck in a difficult position. “They’re dammed if they do and they’re dammed if they don’t,” he said. “If they restrain the child, they are most likely doing it with the intention of stopping them from hurting themselves or harming others. If they don’t restrain the child, then the child is likely to harm someone else. Then the parent is likely to say, ‘Why did my child get head butted? Where are these bite marks from?’”

According to the Victorian Education and Training Reform Regulations restraining a student is legal. Regulation 15 states:

“A member of the staff of a Government school may take any reasonable action that is immediately required to restrain a student of the school from acts or behaviour dangerous to the member of staff, the student, or any other person.”

Julie Phillips said this regulation was too broad.

"This is the regulation that is commonly quoted by a regional director or deputy secretary to defend any type of restraint and seclusion against a child with a disability and as you can see, it’s one sentence - no definitions - it’s the broadest sort of regulation you could possibly have."

Rebecca Cobb, mother to 12-year old Tristan, knows this regulation well. Tristan is talkative, loves action figurines and playing video games.  Unlike other boys his age, he’s the subject of discrimination case against the State of Victoria that’s set to go before the Federal Court.

The case stems from an incident in 2012 when Rebecca went to pick Tristan up from a special school in Melbourne and ran into a staff member. The staff member opened up a door to reveal a pitch black room the size of a disabled toilet.

“I found Tristan lying on a tiled floor crying. He just looked terrified,” Rebecca said.

Documents obtained by Rebecca under freedom of information showed Tristan was regularly placed in a "time out" room, which she believes was the room she saw. On some occasions he’d be sent there up to three times a day.

The school has denied the existence of such a room but its actions could be found to be in breach of the Federal Disability Discrimination Act.

Her lawyer, Joe Ridley, believed this to be a new and emerging area of law. “We believe in Rebecca’s case, and I am hopeful that we can continue to press the envelope in terms of the disability compensation,” he said.

According to Ridley and the Department of Education, there have been similar cases before but exact figures and exact outcomes are hard to gauge.

Many of these cases are settled outside of court, and parents are often required to sign confidentially agreements meaning they can’t openly discuss what happened to their child.

Rebecca’s taking on the state in the hope that things will change. However, a settlement may help the individual involved in the case, but the system remains unchanged.

The outcome of Tristan’s case will be of particular interest to David and Mychelle, both of whom say they’re prepared to take their cases further.

"This has just told us that all our kids are not safe until the Department of Education & Communities recognises abuse is happening," Mychelle said. "It needs to be dealt with, and dealt with firmly.

“My hopes and dreams are that Mitchell can live a relatively good life and have a family of his own...and it can be done, but it’s whether the environment is right.”

Mitchell said his goal was to finish Year 12.

“If I ever see those teachers again I will say to their face, 'I did it. I actually did it'," he said.

"Because not many people believe I can do that.

"I will get there. It may be a long road but I will eventually get there.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons