This past week we learned of yet another serious allegation of abuse of a child with special needs. The incident involved two staff members, and purportedly occurred at an elementary school in Marysville, Washington.
Meg Coyle and Jake Whittenberg of King 5 News report that the seven-year-old child in question has multiple challenges, including ADHD, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. The energetic second-grader is the adopted daughter of Angi Wilson. The child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help address her various needs.
Ms. Wilson claims staff members at the school placed her daughter alone in a small storage closet for two hours as a consequence for misbehaving (the door was removed, with a piece of plywood serving as a barricade). Ms. Wilson also claims her daughter at other times has been dragged by the collar, pinched, hit and had her hair pulled – all by staff members.
School administrators placed the staff members on immediate paid leave while investigating the matter. Time-out rooms are allowed under district policy, but only if regulations are followed. In a surprising twist, the District has refused to allow reporters to see the closet.
I’ve written previously about the devastation suffered by families of children with disabilities when those children are abused by their teachers. In some cases, parents who suspected mistreatment but couldn’t prove it placed a hidden microphone on their child, only to discover horrible episodes of abuse of their child.
Children with special needs can be particularly vulnerable to abuse, given that many cannot speak or communicate effectively. These students often are placed in self-contained classrooms away from their peers, who could serve as witnesses to misconduct. Moreover, when students do manage to speak up, their claims are at times met with skepticism. For example, some parents at the Marysville school refused to consider even the possibility that teachers might be abusing children; they instead blamed the child. Said one parent: “I think it’s the kids themselves playing around and put themselves there (in the closet).”
All this translates into the painful reality of special education classrooms that have small groups of disabled students who cannot describe to their parents what they see going on with their classmates or what they are experiencing themselves. And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are doing remarkable work with challenging students in these classrooms and beyond, it only takes a few ugly episodes to shatter the bonds of trust with parents. Every parent of a child with special needs who reads a story like this inevitably wonders: “What if my child is being abused? How would I know? What can I do to prevent it?”
A law recently passed by the Washington state legislature and awaiting signature by the governor would require that parents be notified when a child with an IEP is placed in a time-out room or is otherwise restrained. This is a good start, but more is needed.
It’s time for school districts to place security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms. The Texas Senate passed a bill this month mandating cameras in special education classrooms after hearing “heartbreaking” testimony from parents describing episodes of abuse. Video technology is now widely available. These cameras provide an extra set of eyes and ears for our most vulnerable students, and can also protect teachers against false claims of abuse. If we can place cameras on school buses, in crowded high school hallways, at doggie daycares and inside ATM machines, we can and should place them in self-contained classrooms.
Beth T. Sigall
April 27, 2013