School ‘padded cell’ outcry

Liam Croy

Disability advocates have criticised the use of isolation rooms in Perth schools after receiving reports of autistic students being held in “padded cells” until they calmed down.

The tip-offs came through a hotline set up on Saturday by organisations behind the WA disability abuse inquiry — Developmental Disability WA and People With Disabilities WA.

The hotline gave disabled West Australians, their relatives and carers a chance to report abuse in residential and institutional settings.

The West Australian was given the names of six schools in Perth, most of them education support schools, which had isolation rooms or “dark rooms”.

Developmental Disability WA chief executive Taryn Harvey said it was important that education and disability sectors worked together but schools had to do better than solitary confinement. She said isolation rooms were a “cop out” and the sort of thing that pushed parents to find alternative means of educating their autistic children.

“People being segregated, isolated or restrained in any setting is problematic and creates a risk of abuse, neglect and violence,” Mrs Harvey said.

“Restraining children and forcing them into a room is not going to make things better.

“It would appear that in many cases where restraint is used as a behaviour management technique, it’s because of a lack of resourcing or a lack of professional development and support to be able to respond to the needs of individual students.”

Education Minister Peter Collier confirmed isolation rooms were used in some schools “in rare circumstances”.

“For the safety of a student and their classmates, schools may use withdrawal or isolation rooms temporarily to defuse a potentially dangerous situation,” Mr Collier said. “Students are not locked inside these rooms and they are observed, generally through a window, at all times.” He said the child’s parents, principal and regional executive director had to sign off on the use of the isolation room.

“The presence and use of such a room in no way means the child is being abused,” he said.

Mrs Harvey said an “administrative detail” such as gaining parental consent did not make the concept acceptable.

“When they’re giving that consent, they probably aren’t anticipating the potential distress their children will experience,” she said.