Monday, 21 May 2012

Teachers Abusing Students With Disabilities

It seems like more and more stories about teachers abusing students with disabilities are popping up in the news these days. There's the story of the Cherry Hill, New Jersey father who discovered that his son, a 10-year-old with autism, was being verbally abused by his teacher, and the more recent story about the 14-year-old with brain damage in who was wheeled into a box in his wheelchair and sometimes shut in it to deal with his outbursts. My question, on reading these stories has been: How many untold stories of teachers abusing children with disabilities exist for each one that gets reported?

Teachers Abusing Students with Disabilities: How Big Is the Problem?

The small amount of research into teachers abusing students in general suggests that the (reported) incidence is quite low.  However, students with disabilities are easy targets in educational systems where teachers are overworked and expectations are very high:
  • Students with disabilities who have been mainstreamed into regular classes are often fighting for increasingly fewer Educational Assistant supports
  • As class sizes grow, teachers have to manage learning needs on a wider and wider spectrum within one classroom with less individual support for students.
  •  In Ontario at least, while all teachers are required to take *some* special education courses are part of their training, they're not required to specialize or stay current in it unless they plan to work in Special Education. The lack of training may mean that teachers don't know how to deal with a student's frustrating behaviours and may end up doing something inappropriate out of ignorance, especially if resources like IEPs and behaviour/safety plans aren't easily accessible at all times.
And, of course, the characteristics of some disabilities make students who have them very vulnerable:
  • A non-verbal student with few ways of communicating is much less likely to report abuse.
  • Some students with disabilities may not understand that they're being abused, and so may not report it.
  • Power differentials may make students with disabilities afraid to report a teacher abusing them.
I'm in no way suggesting that all teachers abuse students with disabilities. However, it seems telling that once parents started to wire their children with disabilities and send them to school, as the Cherry Hill father did, all sort of report of teachers abusing students with disabilities verbally began to come in. Not that wiring your children is necessarily a good idea, because of potential legal ramifications. But I can see why a parent of a child who doesn't communicate verbally might take that step. No matter how frustrating a teacher's job circumstances might be, teachers abusing students with with disabilities (or any student, for that matter) is wrong.

Teachers Abusing Students with Disabilities: I Don't Know Why This Is So Complicated

Teachers and Principals:
  • Refer to behaviour/safety plans and strategies, and follow them. If something strikes you as "Wow, I wouldn't want that being done to my kid", request that the plan be reviewed with your Board's behaviour specialist or a behaviour specialist from an agency.
  • Keep families in the loop. Review behaviour plans/strategies each year at the IPRC.  Keep a communication book going between the school and home.
  • Keep each other accountable as staff for what sorts of behaviour interventions you use, when, and why.
  • Remember that when students with disabilities do report, they may not be able to do so as eloquently as students without disabilities. Sorting out the details may take more work and may have to involve paraprofessionals. The complaint is still valid, needs to be investigated, and the needed resources should be brought in without hesitation.
If you wouldn't do it to a student who doesn't have a disability, don't do it to a student who has a disability. If you wouldn't use a method of discipline with the parent in the room, there's something wrong, and you need to reconsider what you're doing.
Most special education teachers are in that field because they love it and they want to be there. But the ones that would put a student in a box or call students names don't belong in the classroom. Let's stop teachers abusing students with disabilities and keep schools safe for all students.
More on teachers abusing students with disabilities: 

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