Fury over schoolboy locked in cage
By Kathryn Shine
The Australian, February 9, 2004

A PERTH grandmother is waging a fierce battle with the state Education Department after discovering her 12-year-old intellectually disabled grandson was repeatedly locked in an outdoor caged enclosure at school.

Sheila Simons recently won her fight to have the enclosure removed from Kenwick School but is still pushing for the principal and teacher involved to be stood down, and a formal apology from the department.

Ms Simons, who has been Neil's guardian since he was a toddler, said she was horrified when she first saw the enclosure.

"It was a cage. When I saw it I just cried. I cry every time I think of it. Neil was absolutely hysterical," she said.

"He was saying, 'Mummy help me, Mummy help me'. I thought, what the hell are they doing to him?"

The enclosure - an area of grass the size of a small room surrounded by a 3.5m-high wire fence backing on to a demountable building - had been purpose-built for Neil. It had a wooden bench but no toilet nor access to water.

At her request, Ms Simons was given copies of written reports by Neil's then teacher, Pat Webb, which detail his behaviour and the use of the enclosure from October 10, 2002, to the end of that school term.

They show he was initially put in the enclosure almost every day - sometimes several times a day - for periods up to one hour and 20 minutes.

The notes report Neil, who has an autism-related disorder, was "obviously upset with the new quiet garden", that he "quickly becomes distraught" and repeatedly tried to climb out, often injuring himself.

They also show he frequently took off his clothes, urinated and defecated in the enclosure. On one occasion he "disturbed" Year 9 students who threw rocks at him.

The Australian requested to speak to the school principal, Judy Gardner, but was told district director Leila Bothams would comment on behalf of the school and department.

Ms Bothams said the school, which caters specifically for students with disabilities, and the district office had sought advice from Murdoch University behavioural expert David Leach before creating the "withdrawal facility" for Neil.

She said Ms Simons was told about it and gave her verbal consent before it was installed.

But Ms Simons refutes that, saying although she knew Professor Leach was helping the school with Neil's behavioural problems, she was never told her grandson would be put in a caged enclosure.

She was furious when she discovered the enclosure - the teacher notes confirm "Neil's Mum was very angry he was in the garden" in December 2002 - and assumed the school had ceased using it.

The department though, says the enclosure was used until September last year, and that Ms Simons had provided written consent for the "quiet garden" last March.

Ms Bothams said: "It's very important for me to emphasise the severity of the behaviour in this student's case.

"It was necessary to design and implement an individual behaviour-management plan.

"The facility allowed him the opportunity to let off steam and calm down in a way in which he could retain his dignity.

"Within two months there was a significant turnaround. By the end of the school term the student was engaging in almost all aspects of the curriculum. It was a successful strategy."

Ms Bothams said it was not unusual for timeout or withdrawal facilities to be used but conceded she was not aware of outdoor enclosures at any other schools.

Ms Simons, who has raised her concerns with Premier Geoff Gallop and Education Minister Alan Carpenter, has repeatedly sought an assurance caged enclosures will not be used at schools in the future.

Ms Bothams yesterday refused to make such a commitment.

"If another circumstance like this arose, and all the processes had been followed, and it was found to be the most appropriate strategy I would not be against it."

She said Neil was rarely put in the enclosure after the first few months and sometimes voluntarily went in there when the gate was left open.

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