During the 2015 school year the principal at my son’s school:
-shamed, humiliated, isolated, discriminated and frightened my 9-year-old son. Verbally attacked me on more than one occasion even demanding that my son be placed in “in-patient” treatment and “medicated.” After being told that he was not to have contact with my son, the principal held him in an office and refused to release him to my care and then chased me to my car when I brought my son to safety.
This was the school’s response:
After careful review of a full body of evidence, including a review of the Executive Director’s goals for the 2015-2016 school year, a self-evaluation, staff evaluations, community feedback, staff agreements and handbook, staff hiring processes and performance expectations, professional development, and an expectation that formal professional training on executive leadership will be completed, the Board renewed the contract of Mr. J C as the Executive Director of ** School for the 2016-2017 school year.
One in three children identified as having a disability and receiving special education services will be subjected to abuse, be that physical, psychological or sexual. That is ten times more likely than their non-disabled peers. (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000) Research also suggests that the type of disability raises the risk for specific types of abuse: non-verbal children being at greater risk for neglect, children with behavioral needs more at risk for physical abuse. While an older study states that the rate of sexual abuse is nearly two times greater for children with disabilities (Mansell, Sobsey, and Moskal, 1998) gender bias in diagnosis, the inability -or unwillingness of children, who often suffer neglect as well and lack confidence that anyone will care, and misattributed and missed behavioral symptoms make the numbers almost impossible to quantify. In cases of abuse within the school system, collusion between two or more adults to cover up abuse is alarmingly common. In a 2011 study conducted in Ontario, 2-11% of teachers were reported to have been observed bullying disabled students in the classroom when observed by interns who often fail to report the abuse for fear of reprisal.
The Turning Away:
While it is impossible to look at the numbers and not see a pattern of social behavior that impacts the welfare of disabled students, it is also equally difficult to see proof within the system that laws, organizations and safeguards are effective at providing a safety net. While I could write a great deal about numbers and finance and class sizes, that would just be scratching the surface of the iceberg. The truth is that the problem is deeper and more pervasive:
First look: A parent posts a video of their child in the middle of an autistic meltdown on social media. They caption the video, “Guess it will be another six months before I can have dinner out with my husband.” The video is received by uneducated viewers like a train wreck. They get a certain sadistic thrill watching someone else suffer, then respond with sympathy for the parent and disgust for the child.
Look again: A well-educated social paradigm would recognize this sort of public shaming for what it is : abuse. A child in the throes of a meltdown needs the care and compassion of the people that they depend on; to stand back with a camera is unforgivable and speaks to the need for education. A meltdown is a neurological event, the child is responding to multiple sensory stressors, the least of which can be assumed to be parents who are unwilling or unable to apply compassion, understanding, logic or reason to a difficult situation. A well-educated social paradigm would have sympathy for the child, and concern for the support and education of the parent. The act of publicly shaming the child an abhorrent display of abusive behavior.
Without a broad base of community education and socially supportive programs the abuse and neglect of children on the spectrum will increase, even as they are isolated, restrained, and even murdered by their own parents and loved ones. Within our communities education professionals are trained to recognize signs of abuse and help identify at risk children. However, if the schools are part of that cycle of abuse the child becomes almost completely without a voice of advocacy, and some are literally unable to ask for help. However, even when the abuse is identified, even when the acts are grotesque, inhuman, torturous and in many cases lead to the death of a child, social stigma and ignorance give an almost free pass to those who offend.
In the case of my own family intimidation was used to prevent my son from speaking about the horror he was facing at school though true to his nature his behavior was communicating loud and clear. Sadly, deciphering behavior can take time, and with the professionals who I depended on to help me spot the clues were carefully covering tracks, it took longer than it should have to see what was happening. In the end all of the proof in the world was not enough to show how the person who attacked me and abused my son is unfit to be in his position.
In the weeks that my family worked through and recorded the events of the battle for special education, I was contacted by so many families caught in the same cycle who felt helpless, hopeless and confused by a system that was failing all around them. An advocate from the ARC, after a long talk on day, said to me that it seemed like I was working day and night to elevate the thinking of the people who should have been supporting me. But, she said, you cannot elevate people who are not interested in change. Your efforts are seen as madness. She then said that she was retiring from more than 20 years of working to make a difference for disabled students knowing that things were worse than they had ever been. I am certain there were victories along the way, but not enough and in the end the children are the victims.
Can we really afford to turn a blind eye?
Learn the signs of abuse