16 Nov 2017

School, Ministry criticised over use of seclusion room

7:52 pm on 16 November 2017

A specialist Invercargill school and the Ministry of Education have been criticised by the Chief Ombudsman after a vulnerable autistic boy was kept in a seclusion room on numerous occasions.

Ruru Specialist School

Ruru Specialist School Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

The boy's parents raised concerns about their son being taken from his satellite classroom and placed in a small corner room at Ruru Specialist School's main site between 2011 and 2014.

The report said it was accepted that this occurred on at least four occasions, but the school's record keeping was not reliable and it was impossible to conclusively determine whether it happened more often.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said the boy's parents were instrumental in bringing about a law change banning the use of seclusion at schools due to their concerns.

In his final opinion, he called on the school to apologise to the boy and his parents.

"While I have found no evidence of unlawful actions (under the legislation at the time) by any party, or that ERO acted unreasonably, I have formed the opinion that Ruru acted unreasonably in using Room A to manage [the child's] behaviour," Judge Boshier said.

"In particular, it failed to consult with [his parents] about the proposed use of Room A or inform them about its actual use; it failed to clearly and accurately record transportation to, and use of, Room A; Room A was unsuitable in location and form for the purpose for which it was used; and the Ministry's failure to provide schools with clear and unambiguous up-to-date guidance in relation to the use of seclusion was an unreasonable omission."

He recommended the school provide a written apology to the family.

The school, the Ministry and ERO had already taken steps to address some of the failings highlighted in the report.

"I appreciate that for [the boy's parents], those changes do not alter what happened in respect of [their son]," he said.

"However, their complaints were without question instrumental in effecting change at a national level - most notably the development of clear guidance on the use of physical restraint in schools and a legislative change to reinforce the prohibition on seclusion in schools."

The boy's father Callum Turnbull said he will not accept an apology from the school because it has refused to acknowledge to him and his wife that they did anything wrong.

"The school has never accepted any responsibility, in fact they've gone as far, in newsletters, telling the public that they have abided by all policies in the past and the present…they have told the community that the safe room they had been using they absolutely agree that what they were doing was correct," Mr Turnbull told Checkpoint.

"It just seems too big to accept an apology just for one child when we think there has been probably at this school, you know, possibly 100 children or more who have been secluded hundreds of times over the 14 year period. It just doesn't seem right that we would accept an apology, a forced apology like that."

Speaking exclusively to Checkpoint, he said they were disappointed the Ombudsman only investigated the use of the seclusion room in regards to their son, and not other children or the wider use of seclusion in New Zealand schools.

"We didn't think it properly uncovered the actual practice of what was going on at Ruru school because I guess it was only narrowed to our son and the four years he attended the school. I think by narrowing it to only our son it didn't overall give a look to other evidence that may have been relevant.

"We're talking about a room that was used since 1999 over a 15 year period, and we believe a lot of that information was relevant and just wasn't regarded in the report."

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey said she welcomed the Ombudsman's report.

Schools now had clear guidance on restraint and seclusion, she said.

"Late last year we released guidance on effective behaviour management to minimise physical restraint and advised all schools that the use of seclusion must be stopped immediately," she said.

"The government announced at the same time that it would introduce legislation to ban the practice of seclusion. This came into force when the Education (Update) Amendment Act 2017 was enacted in May.

"We've since introduced statutory guidelines and rules to align with the new legislation. These have been developed with the support of a sector-based advisory group."

Judge Boshier said while he found no evidence of unlawful behaviour according to the legislation at the time, the school and ministry had let the boy and his family down.

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