School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Some thoughts on abuse in special ed classrooms

A story on NBC’s Today Show this week about teachers abusing a student with disabilities has received a lot of attention. Parents of a 14-year old special needs student in Washington Courthouse, Ohio wired their child with a hidden recording device in her clothing over a four-day span because they suspected she was being bullied by her teachers. Their daughter, Cheyenne, had transformed from a student who enjoyed school to one who was resorting to self-injury to avoid going to school. According to the parents, they asked the school and school district to investigate whether Cheyenne was being abused. But the parents claimed they were told by the school that their child was lying, that there was no independent proof of any misconduct, and that the teachers were doing a good job.

During an interview of Cheyenne and her father on the Today Show, excerpts from the recordings revealed numerous instances of abusive and bullying conduct of Cheyenne by the lead teacher and teacher’s aide. At various times the teacher or teacher’s aide calls Cheyenne “dumb” and a “liar,” then adds to the humiliation by concluding “No wonder you don’t have any friends.” In one instance, the teacher’s aide sarcastically chides the girl: “Cheyenne, are you kidding me? Are you that damn dumb? You are that dumb.”

The teacher’s aide also castigates Cheyenne for being overweight, and blames Cheyenne’s family: “Don’t you want to get rid of that belly? . . . Go for a walk. Do you know how to? You are just lazy and your family is lazy.”

In the recordings we also hear what appears to be the lead teacher’s refusal to grade Cheyenne’s completed test: “You failed it. I know it. I don’t need your test to grade. You failed it.” The Columbus Dispatch reports that on the tapes it appears Cheyenne was forced to run on a treadmill as a consequence for answering a question incorrectly.

These recordings are every parent’s worst nightmare. Each morning at school drop off parents make a leap of faith: “Here’s my child. Please take care of her.” At Cheyenne’s school this bond of trust has been irrevocably shattered.

The overwhelming majority of teachers and aides working with students with disabilities are remarkable people doing remarkable work. But the ugly episodes of abuse we hear on these tapes inevitably (and unfairly) tarnish teachers as a whole, because they create doubt about the safety and well-being of our children. Thus even though Cheyenne’s teachers are a few bad apples, as parents we want checks in place to ensure that even those few bad apples don’t end up in our kids’ classrooms, particularly and especially if it’s a special education classroom.

So, like most parents, I’m left wondering what measures could have been in place as built-in checks against this type of bullying and abuse. Two ideas come to mind.

First, no one seemed to believe Cheyenne except her parents. According to the parents as reported by ABC News, the school district wanted independent corroboration, but that’s hard to come by if the abusers are the only witnesses, and the student lacks appropriate communication skills because of their disability (which appears to have been the case with Cheyenne). Cheyenne’s classroom was a resource room where “students with severe disabilities” were taught. As such, it’s highly likely that Cheyenne’s classmates weren’t capable of reporting what they saw to another adult, or even understanding why it was wrong.

This is why states should require that school districts install security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms and resource rooms. The students in special education classrooms are among our most vulnerable. Security cameras can and should serve as the voice for children who cannot speak for themselves. Many schools already use security cameras to monitor areas where students may not have enough supervision, such as hallways, playgrounds and school buses. Special education classrooms are a logical extension of this, because in these areas the student population needs additional monitoring and protection.

Second, let’s keep working on making special education classrooms and resource rooms more accessible to all students, not just those with disabilities (as many schools and school districts already do). The presence of typical peers in these classrooms in mentoring or buddy programs can serve as a check on abusive or bullying behavior by teachers, aides or other students. These peer model students can not only serve as witnesses to any misconduct, they can also help form friendships that are crucial in making the school experience a successful one for all students.

Beth T. Sigall

November 18, 2011

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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on abuse in special ed classrooms

  1. Ingersoll on said:

    Glad you commented on this and actually thought of concrete suggestions. It was one of the most disgusting stories I’ve ever seen. I thought that not only should the teachers be fired, but so should an administrator. The heartbreak of the father was palpable and it’s obvious he communicated his concerns in a constructive way to the principal. I suppose he will take the cash in a settlement.

  2. I did read that the parent accepted a $300,000 settlement. It’s unclear what will happen to the teacher, and it appears nothing happened to the school administrator (although that could change). The teacher’s aide was terminated from her job.

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