Roger Law from Action for Tasmanian Autistic Children and the fenced-in area at Howrah Primary School where he says students with disabilities are segregated at recess and lunch times. Picture: NIKKI DAVIS-JONES
DAMIEN BROWN | September 13, 2010 08.03am
STUDENTS with intellectual disabilities are being "caged" inside a fenced-off area at a Hobart school in a security measure parents and advocates have slammed as inhumane.
There have also been reports of another Tasmanian school making its special-needs students wear bright red hats so they can be easily counted within the school yard.
Action for Tasmanian Autistic Children secretary Roger Law said several parents have complained to him about their autistic children who attend Howrah Primary School being confined at recess and lunch each school day in a fenced area away from the other children.
The school has about 10 students with special needs, mainly autism.
Legal experts have also warned the practice could "emotionally damage" the children and result in massive legal payouts for a breach of duty of care by the Department of Education.
"This type of conduct clearly amounts to direct discrimination on the grounds of the disability and further stigmatises these children," Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns has said.
"There is the real risk of serious liability here. The Government is in a very perilous situation."
The Education Department has defended the use of the area, which is part of a major recent redevelopment at the campus.
The fenced-in area also has a sandpit inside a lockable shed in which the children shelter if it rains or is too hot.
The whole area is no longer than an average-sized cricket pitch.
Mr Law said the children are so bored they have started to dig holes around the yard and throw their toys on the roof of the shed.
Two angry mothers, who did not wish to be named for fear of stigmatising their children further, are understood to have withdrawn their children from the school in disgust.
Mr Law said the department says the fence is in place to keep the children safe because the school is located near a busy road and near the shores of the River Derwent.
He said he would be seeking an immediate meeting with the Education Department to demand cessation of the practice.
"That schools should be forced into making these sorts of decisions after 15 years of integration underlines the abject failure of the Tasmanian Government to properly fund autism services in this state," he said.
"The Government's failure to introduce early screening and diagnostic services and then early, intensive behavioural therapies for autistic children means that many such children are being diagnosed after they arrive at school.
"This means we are putting children with a developmental age well below that of their peers into classes where they cannot possibly cope.
"It is not surprising that schools are resorting to knee-jerk reactions, such as building pens to cage the children."
He said the school involved in making its children wear the red hats would not be named until a response was received from the Education Department.
Education Department general manager learning services south-east Bob Phillips has defended the play area, which was part of a major redevelopment of the early childhood classrooms.
"The design of the play areas took into consideration safety concerns in relation to the nearby beach and car park," Mr Phillips said.
"Fencing of the playground was part of the overall safety considerations and was in fact a priority request from the school's parents and friends."
Mr Phillips said the placing of any child with special needs in the area during lunch and recess was done following negotiations with the parents of that child, a claim that has been denied by the two mothers who are understood to have pulled their children out of the school.
Liberal education spokesman Michael Ferguson said he was "shocked and disturbed" that such a retrograde step could be taken in this age.
He said he was hearing similar stories of poor treatment from many parents of children with disabilities.
He has called for more funding to support schools with special-needs children.
see also Courier Mail: Hobart school isolates intellectually disabled students