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Report on Abuse of Special Needs Students Raises Questions, Anxiety

By May 19, 2009

According to an article in USA Today, the Government Accountability Office will shortly come out with a report citing an incredible range of abuse aimed at disabled children in the public schools.
Children with disabilities are being secluded from classmates and restrained against their will to control their behavior, a new investigative report finds interventions that have led to harm and, in rare cases, deaths.

In many cases, the restraints happen even when students aren't physically aggressive or dangerous, says a report from the Government Accountability Office being released Tuesday.

This is a terrifying report, and, from what I have heard and read from families, the types of abuse reported are by no means limited to schools coping with poverty, crime, or other issues. In fact, seclusion rooms (often called "quiet rooms"), restraints and similar approaches to discipline are everywhere. And in many cases, kids with disabilities are the ONLY children who are subject to such draconian discipline. Typical kids may act out similarly, and receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

What makes the situation especially difficult is the reality that some kids with autism and similar disorders who are placed in typical classrooms do consistently disrupt the class. General education teachers may or may not have specific training in behavior management. What's more, she may or may not have access to an aide, a 1:1 shadow, or a "drop in" special education teacher to support her as she attempts to manage a class of 23 kids, several children with special needs, and expectations of high performance on standardized tests. This means that teachers and parents of typically developing students may be quite right in saying that the child with special needs is truly disrupting the educational process.

Of course, in an ideal world, every autistic child would be appropriately included with full support - for the child, his peers, his teachers and his parents. My strong guess, though, is that lack of support - and flat ignorance of behavior management strategies and the law - are the source of so much abuse.

I don't have the answer to this puzzle (which is part of the reason why my son with autism is presently homeschooled). Certainly, funding for and requirement of appropriate behavior management supports is critical. But what if the supports don't work? What if the teacher isn't particularly talented - or is anxious around kids with special needs? What if there's a really negative relationship among the child with special needs and his peers?

I'd be interested to hear from readers how you would resolve some of the problems inherent in including autistic children in typical classrooms. Would you push for more specialized classrooms? Provide more teachers per class? Have full time behavior specialists in every school? And - given the cost of these and similar "fixes" - who should be asked to foot the bill?

May 19, 2009 at 8:50 pm
(1) mamacate says:

Who should foot the bill? I’m sorry, but I find that question so incredibly incongruous given the content of this hearing. Did you read the reports? Of children being MURDERED by their teachers? For sneaking candy? My son’s case is in that GAO report, and I am honestly deeply disturbed to hear that that’s your question. I cannot fathom the value system that would put money in opposition to any measure that would stop children from being abused.

Even worse, money has little to nothing to do with it. The teachers and aides who abused my son are paid on the same pay schedule as the ABA teachers across town (who will be his teachers next year). Look at the cost of tuition at Judge Rotenberg Center. It’s no cheaper than any positive-ABA school that serves a similar population. In fact it’s more expensive than most.

I’m actually having trouble making this rather obvious argument because it is so deeply disturbing that someone in the Autism community is asking such a question. Are you really asking how much it’s worth to teach someone skills instead of giving them electric shocks or locking them in a closet? $100? $1000? $10,000? Mass. alone has paid $25.6 Billion toward the Iraq war since 2001. How many behaviorists would that pay for in our state? How on earth is “who will foot the bill” the question about THIS?

Those who defend JRC say the students there cannot be taught any other way. Adminstrators claim these measures are only used in emergencies (not true based on my own experience and the stories recounted today). But you seem to be putting a price tag (an erroneous one at that) on whether we should do something about abuse of disabled children. Is that really what you think?

May 19, 2009 at 9:11 pm
(2) autism says:

Mamacate, I’m very sorry to hear of your son’s mistreatment! I certainly am not suggesting that abuse is ok in any way shape or form. The rate of pay is irrelevant.

But I think you’re misreading my point.

I’m not suggesting that people should be abusing children!!!

I’m suggesting that some of the problems that arise when kids with autism are included in general ed classrooms in typical public school settings are caused by the lack of support provided in such settings.

The cost of providing optimal support for a special needs child in a general ed setting is very high. In some cases, the costs can be in the tens of thousands per student – much, much higher than the cost of educating a typical child. Since the budgets for individual school systems come largely from local home owners, the amount of money available depends upon the tax base and tax rate locally.

As a result, in many communities, kids with autism are “mainstreamed” in typical classrooms without support. Teachers are asked to manage challenging behaviors – but they don’t have the training or extra hands to allow them to do so while actually teaching. This kind of situation can easily lead to a teacher feeling she has no choice but to remove the child from the classroom – which seems to often mean placing the child in an unmonitored “quiet room.” Evidently, in some places this goes much further (though I can’t imagine why or how the districts justify what they do).

In an ideal world, the teacher would have training, support, and even a 1:1 aide and behavior specialist to support the child. But those specialists come at a very high price. When a community sees that the costs of special education are edging out programs like art, music and gifted programs, there can be real tension.

Hence my question: who should foot the bill? Should it be a federal issue? A state issue? Or should individual communities be asked to fund special education at the cost of programs traditionally provided for the entire student body?

Obviously I am coming from a different place: I’ve never lived through the kind of situation you and your son have endured. And again, I’m sorry you’ve had to cope with something like this.


May 19, 2009 at 9:41 pm
(3) Kevin says:

I have a relative in a group home in NYC called Finson. The manager Curtis Walker,is a homosexual who has been known to have “conditioned” sex with male consumers and gives showrs while he is in the nude. He wouyld leave “lover” notes to retarded men and play sex games with them during indoor rec. Criminals like this are the pewople we rely on to care for he disabled.

May 19, 2009 at 9:44 pm
(4) Sandy says:

These situations don’t only happen in inclusions settings, it also happens in self contained settings so adding more specialized classrooms is not an answer. If one was to consider a parent with more than one child, had that parent acted in the same way that child would be taken into protective custody. Since the laws says a child must be schooled, and since some can not home school, no child should endure such things and no school should down play the behavior of their employees. When it comes to teachers in inclusion, I believe they do need proper training per the child’s disability and even if they do not, who allows a child to sit in a room for over 2 hours? And then taunts the child with a video?? The child told the teacher to shut up, ok yes, disrespectful but not violent. Does that not sound way over the top punishment? I highly doubt a training class would had prevented that and one has to wonder if a teacher had that behavior, did they instigate and escalate the child to begin with. One also has to wonder if such acts by trusted adult would result in a violent angry confused child.

When and if a teacher feels they are loosing control, count to 10 and call another teacher or the child’s case manager. Often it doesn’t take a whole lot to redirect children, might take a lot longer if the adult is adding to that situation. Just like parents, maybe teachers do need to pick their battles and obviously a verbal statement shouldn’t result in what happened to that boy in the article. It certainly interfered with that child’s right to FAPE. The cost of a special ed child I doubt would ever be more than attorney fee’s to defend their actions in cases like this, and that’s even if the school does anything about it. Who should pay?? My first guess would be the offender. My second guess would be the school district and state.

Horrible. They need camera’s in the classroom and time out rooms.

mamacate~ it breaks my heart to hear about any child being abused. I hope you and your child are doing ok.

May 20, 2009 at 8:36 am
(5) Nancy Peske says:

Alas, we will never be able to ensure that every teacher has common sense and compassion, but I have to say that those who do are so trainable, and often their instincts are just wonderful because they truly are tuned in to children and what makes them tick. My son had a teacher who knows nothing about sensory issues but has always had a rule about quiet in the classroom because she’s noticed that some kids get hyper when there’s background noise. Those are the teachers we want for all kids. And we need to support them with aides and training when needed. Federal dollars should be paying, but In my state, the state funding formula ensures that my district will get NONE of the stimulus funding for Title 1 and IDEA allotted for us because of mickey mouse rules. Even when the money’s there, those who really understand what these kids need seem to have their hands tied!

May 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm
(6) Candy says:

I have been a classroom teacher for 35 years. In my opinion the parents of special ed kids got just what they lobbied for…..inclusion. You got what you wanted so shut up and deal with it!!

August 26, 2011 at 6:39 am
(7) Lisa says:

I certainly never asked for this. Children with special needs have such a wide degree of “needs” and I will never understand how they all come lumped into one class. A child in a wheelchair because he/she has little muscle control may be very intelligent (ie. Stephen Hawking) and has different needs than a child with autism or down syndrome. So as far as special need children are concerned, your 35 years teaching are worthless. You just don’t have a clue…

May 20, 2009 at 2:31 pm
(8) Jerry Reynolds says:

Regular division teachers do not choose a “special ed” major because they don’t want to deal with kids with “special needs.” The regular division classroom IS NOT the place for these kids!!!! That is the reason we have “special ed” classrooms with “special ed” teachers who have been trained. Parents: GET A CLUE!!!

May 20, 2009 at 2:58 pm
(9) Sandy says:

Abuse shouldn’t happen regardless of who lobbied for what. There is no excuse for why these abuse cases happen and the one in the article wasn’t even a violent act of the child. Although the focus is special ed children, these things also happen to regular ed children who have behavior issues. Same thing could happen to a regular ed child if they spoke out of place. So be careful where blame is pointed at. There are laws that say a child who is special ed that supports should be in place for that child no matter what the class setting is. Years ago a lot of abuse happened in self contained classes, there were no non disabled witnesses! Only school employee’s and disabled kids. The school denies services, leaving two victims; teacher and child. It’s the schools that often do not want the added cost of a self contained class, so their happy to throw a child into inclusion, they deem it cheaper. Then the school often fails to tell parents issues that are going on which would enable and verify the need for denied supports.

Who should pay? State and federal should, to ensure treachers have correct coping skills and children have the supports they need to gain an education.

May 20, 2009 at 4:15 pm
(10) Christine Wheeler says:

This story just hit home for me. My son is autistic and my daughter is in the special education program for ADHD and I couldn’t stop crying listening to these stories. My son was seen being grabbed and squeezed hard and dragged from his christmas party screaming for me to help him. This was caught on video. The reason he was pulled out was because he quietly counted to 5. He had just learned to speak and only knew few words. I was told that if he was pushed down a flight of stairs that the school would tell me he was pushed…and this was what the principal told me in her office. I pulled my son out of the school and moved to ensure his safety. It wasn’t but a week later in the new school they lost my son twice. There is nothing like the fear of waiting for the bus to see your child not get off and the school not know where he is. There are so many other instances that I couldn’t count. I don’t think its the money its the lack of teachers who are educated in the childs area of disability. I have seen manythings and when I tried to help my son when he was assulted the police officer was brought to tears to hear that I had to go through the department of education to do something about it. As a parent how do we fix this… I fought to help protect my children and I have been threatened and am in the process of getting a restraining order on a teacher in the school now for emotional abuse on a child that has a fragile anxiety disorder. At age six she tells me she wants to kill herself because of the emotional abuse. When will this nonsense stop!!!

May 21, 2009 at 8:22 am
(11) Jamie says:


So it’s to my understanding from your post that because we have special Ed children that it’s ok for them to be abused??? I think not!!! I am in the process of getting my degree and regardless of what a child has or not the impact of any kind of abuse to a child has a lot of baring of their emotional states. It impacts their self concept as well as self-esteem and you as a professional should know that. One would question your ethics as a teacher for making such a comment.

May 21, 2009 at 1:28 pm
(12) Paula says:

Wow. Some of the comments that I have read are unbelievable! To think that children would be abused physically and/or verbally is unthinkable in a school setting, especially by a teacher.

My son is almost six years old and thankfully is in a special needs classroom at a very good public elementary school (luckily we didn’t have to move like so many other families do).

Comments like Jerry and Candy’s are uncalled for. We, as parents, all want what is best for our child(ren). Sometimes that means a special ed classroom like my son has and sometimes it involves inclusion. I think its great to have a choice depending on the individual child’s abilities. Also, we are TAXPAYERS like everyone else and our children deserve a good education like other children.

May 21, 2009 at 2:51 pm
(13) mamacate says:

Just to clarify, my son’s abuse was at the hands of certified special ed staff, in a special ed classroom. The seclusion room is inside a special ed classroom and 99% of parents and kids in the district don’t know it’s there. Look at the data. Most of the deaths detailed in recent reports took place in substantially separate classrooms and “therapeutic” schools. This isn’t about inclusion.

Inclusion helps prevent it, because it’s harder to cover it up (like when the gym teacher put my son in prone restraint, and another parent called me to tell me her son’s friend had witnessed it and told his mother).

May 24, 2009 at 5:08 am
(14) Parent says:

Candi and Jerry U 2 R such a ass that U both must B in a family setting that is such a fake that would leave U both @! leave such a SPECIAL comment

May 25, 2009 at 11:04 am
(15) Tiffanie says:

Dear Candi and Jerry,

You both has made it apparent that either one of you love someone with a disability. It is a shame that you two cannot share the joy and love that each of us have for our own children or family members. I am sorry also that you two are very uneducated people and don’t understand the benefits of inclusion setting for children with autism. I suggest you pick up a book and read how children quickly learn from other children. Especially, language (inclusion is a great way for children to pick up language from typical children) and no matter what setting a child is placed in, they have no right to be abused. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as any other human being.

July 21, 2009 at 12:49 pm
(16) chrissy says:

ive just ran across youre post my queston is ive alwayse wanted cameras in my sons class he is mentally handicaped and has a rare disorder that causes major behavior problems we have been through many schools and now his newest teacher sat on him to calm him down he told me in the way he can pointing and showing i caled the princapal the last day of school he said he would talk to her now hes going bk into this class and hes not the only one that has had problems with her i wish i knew how to go about getting cameras in the class room for kids that can not speek for them selfs i dont understand why its not some kind of law to have these class rooms monitored

July 24, 2009 at 4:29 pm
(17) donna says:

This is an excellent question to bring up about who should foot the bill, etc. As well as other questions on abuse issues, etc.

I’m a mother of 3 with 2 now grown boys with autism and one of those boys also has SSS, ADHD, aphasia as well. My experience with autism is both working in and out of the autistic classroom. So I can relate to many of these comments!

Abuse is not only physical but verbal and mental as well with special ed teachers as well as regular education teachers with our kids. Schools have weird rules sometimes. One school allows a child to run around the room throwing things, knocking things over and never tries to stop the child physically for fear of law suit. Yet they still could be sued if the child hurts himself in the process. That happened much to my horror one time with a NORMAL but disturbed child while I was working in the classroom as a one on one assistant to an aspergers child..If my pupil had tried such a thing, I had the right to restrain him from hurting himself. Yet this incident with the rampant child..the teacher followed procedure to take all the kids OUT of the room and allowed the child to continue…EEK.. I was horrified!

The US does not put education as a top priority. Thus funding has always been under par with OPTIMUM education. WE can only expect ADEQUATE education. Pushing for more money is necessary! Yet, states will take education monies to support other efforts such is the case with Educational LOttery money!

I’m a firm believer that student ratios of teachers to students is too high. Many disabilities with children go unrecognized until college years many times. So training teachers to deal with ALL disabilities is the way to go. Learning to teach my boys I discovered the TEACH and ABA approaches to be beneficial to ALL students.

With smaller students to classrooms a teacher can deal more effectively and provide the extra support when needed. Just need to see how successful many other countries are in dealing with these issues..They put us to shame! We are so BEHIND them! and yet we are one of the RICHEST countries in the world and we spend far fewer dollars per child then other countries do.

My biggest complaint is the ignorance from teachers as well as parents. Often we blame bad behaviors as poor parenting issues, stubborness, mean spirited, etc. when that is not the case. WE fail to recognize the triggers, the child’s perception of the world, etc and put our beliefs in a narrow window of “norms” and “expectations”. So parents and teachers CLASH! Oh..so sad!

Put EDUCATION at the TOP of the list for PRIORITIES and see how EVERYTHING gets better in AMERICA!

January 4, 2010 at 4:51 am
(18) jj says:

Even a normal person who is wrongly diagnosed is prone to bullying from the so called norms. They send them to segregated special ed classes and that automatically creates a problem, akin to making someone wear a dunce cap, it is actually quite demoralizing to a persons self esteem, and only results in furthur discrimation by other students and even teachers. There is nothing worse than having a 156 IQ and being treated like you are some sort a manchild when it is unessecary.

June 17, 2010 at 7:52 am
(19) Wil says:

Hi, I guess you are in the US the experience in the Uk is very similar. I am in the position of having sat on both sides of the fence as a one to one to a child with an Autistic spectrum disorder and agressive tendancies, and as a parent of a child with a pervasive developmental disorder who was seen on two occasion physically abuse our child who is now not in school. My experience it is about the three things, you mention cost, the experience and the character of staff involved, and an understanding of the needs of children with P.D.D with particular reference to communication and special regard to their emotions. It is common to see emotional responses in children as they become more aware of how they are disabled by the institution in a way the other children around them aren’t. If this is not given regard and the needs of the child met It is common for this to become crytical about the age of seven or eight, if the parent can’t remove their child from the school at this stage and help them recover over time the damage can be irrevicable. There is no way of removing an autistic spectrum disorder but there are many ways of teaching children to manage their condition in mainstream school and when the appropriate support and understanding is in place and when children are not treated as naughty when they don’t understand an instruction, have not heard it, have not had time to process it or have not had it explained why that instruction is being given children and the school will cope. If the early intervention these children will go on to high school with a much lesser degree of support needed than that if they were failed early on. These children will then have been given the best chance of coping in mainstream society and most will go on to share their special talents with society in a place of work paying their taxes and aiding the economy. The cost of this compared to the cost of failure is negligable. With regard to your specific question what needs to be put in place. With regard to the Uk you will probably get one to one support for your child if you can demonstrate they have a severe enough need, you might have to write lots of letters. A school will ask for one to one support if a child is behaviourally challenging. This on its own is not the answer one to ones are drawn in a large part from parents looking to return to work and to fit school hours, these are not always the people for the job. Pay is of an issue and so is professional status in retaining good staff and in inforcing the level of good practice that must be expected of them. That is not to say that the pay structure and expected qualifications should put this role out of reach of those who are naturally disposed to such a role but there is a balance. Specialist teachers are essential this could be on a floating basis applied in school where special needs are identified, short programmes of work by properly qualified inderviduals can work wonders. It must be noted that these must be specifically for children with P.D.D or there role would be too diluted amongst many competing children. It must be recognised that if a specific learning difficulty is not met or a communication issue is not recognised and acted on in a child with a P.D.D the disafection of that child is likly to be more rapid and more severe than for other children. Of course there is always the question of cost and if funding is not clearly mandatory and if assessment is not purely independent parents will always struggle to get what their children need.

January 21, 2011 at 8:30 am
(20) P. Morlas says:

You can’t count on the school system or the government to help with taking care of your aspergers child. My son received services through the public school system for awhile because they classified him as developmentally delayed but when that ended at age 9, he was left with speech alone. Even when he was finally diagnosed with Aspergers, nothing special was done for him because he was not diagnosed in the State’s eyes as having “austism.” I’ve had to quit my job and homeschool him because the teachers were’nt trained to help him and the kids were cruel to him. And don’t think that communication with the school is the key because they don’t tell you how bad your child is being bullied. That’s why I pulled my child out of school. The anxiety was so bad he finally told me what had been happening. He was teased and bullied on a daily basis, the teachers knew, and no one ever called me or told me.
And the government won’t help either. I even worked for a prominent judge who is from a very politcal family and she didn’t even care enough to get involved – and I worked for her for 12 years.

Even the extended family doesn’t even know how to help so they just ignore it.

No one is going to help these children but their parents. And the parents are having to deal with the emotional and financial difficulties alone. There is no choice other than to be strong and keep moving forward in what is best for your own child because only you can do what’s really right for your child.

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