Victorian education department to investigate claims disabled children were locked in cages at schools

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DAVID MARK: Victoria's education department is investigating claims that disabled children have been locked up in cages at special schools.

A school principal in Canberra lost her job for putting a boy with special needs in a cage made from pool fencing.

Disability advocates say the practice of locking up children with behavioural problems is actually commonplace in mainstream schools as well as special schools.

They say Victorian authorities have turned a blind eye to the abuse - until now.

Kellie Lazzaro reports.

KELLIE LAZZARO: Rachael Woolley has twin boys, who are both severely autistic.

She says her son Jake was regularly locked up in a small dark room and restrained at the Marnebeck Special School in Cranbourne.

RACHAEL WOOLLEY: They didn't know how to deal with his behaviours, and instead of getting somebody in to help them to understand what was going on, they would grab him and put him into a small time-out room, as they called it, that had windows boarded up; there was no light in the room and they would shut the room and lock him in.

KELLIE LAZZARO: Rachael Woolley has told ABC Local Radio in Melbourne, the mistreatment of her son was not documented by the school, and she only discovered what was happening to him, when he started mimicking the practice at home.

RACHAEL WOOLLEY: He was non-verbal at the time; he was getting people and he was putting them in a room, he was pulling down our roller shutters and he was holding the door shut on them. One of the parents saw my son put into this room and she testified that in court that she saw that. 

KELLIE LAZZARO: The World Today contacted the Marnebeck School, but no one was able to comment on the allegations.

Disability advocate Julie Phillips says the mistreatment of disabled children in schools is widespread.

She says the problem also exists in mainstream schools, and she's heard of autistic children being locked up in first aid rooms and storerooms.

JULIE PHILLIPS: I think the cages in the classrooms in Bendigo SDS, I believe they have been taken down, but they were used for years. I think that is probably one of the worst examples I've heard.

KELLIE LAZZARO: In May, a former teacher at the Bendigo Special Developmental School told SBS cages were used in the classrooms for at least five years, and that students were often physically hurt and restrained by staff, through the use of pressure points.

The school denied those claims.

Julie Hommelhoff has been the principal there since 2010.

In a statement she says: "There are no cages at our school, and the school is fully cooperating with this important process." 

Disability Advocate Julie Phillips says the Government has known of the abuse allegations since May.

JULIE PHILLIPS: So the Department of Education knows full well that there's a variety of these schools that have been restraining and locking up children for a number of years and, despite that, they do not regulate these practices and have done very little in terms of ensuring that they are not repeated.

KELLIE LAZZARO: Do you think it's appropriate that it's taken three months for an investigation to be launched?

JULIE PHILLIPS: No I don't, and I'm concerned about the number of times that I had to contact the Minister about this.

KELLIE LAZZARO: A spokeswoman for the Education Department says the principal of the Bendigo school, Julie Hommelhoff, has not been stood down pending an independent investigation.

DAVID MARK: Kellie Lazzaro.


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