A boy with autism bullied and abused by teachers: The story's been zooming around the web this week. It's horrifying and, if you have a child with special needs, particularly gut-churning. I'll recap it for you:
Stuart Chaifetz is dad to Akian, a ten-year-old with autism who attended Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. As Chaifetz recounted in a piece he put online and video he uploaded to YouTube, he started getting notes home from school that his son was acting violently. That confounded him; Akian, he's said, is a sweet-tempered kid. Finally, Chaifetz placed a digital recorder in Akian's pocket and sent him off to school. What he heard shocked him. "They were literally making my son's life a living hell," he says in the video. "They treated [the kids] as if they were sub-human."
Teachers who abuse kids with special needs are exceptionally repulsive—they're attacking children who are more defenseless than other kids and who may not be able to speak up for themselves. Who are these people? A few bad apples, I figured. But the question literally kept me up at night. So I got in touch with the American Psychological Association, and they connected me with John R. Lutzker, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Healthy Development and Professor of Public Health at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He's an expert on developmental disabilities and child maltreatment.
While Dr. Lutzker cautioned that parents shouldn't be alarmed that teacher abuse of kids with special needs is a trend, it seems that there are some modern-day realities that make it particularly key for us to be on our toes. (Not that you need to wire up your child tomorrow.) What he had to say:
What sort of person—a teacher, no less—could treat a child so disdainfully and abusively?
"People who abuse and neglect children are much more likely to have experienced abuse or neglect growing up, or witnessed it, or had parents with mental illness. People are resilient and survive but anyone who experiences those things is more likely to perpetrate child maltreatment."
Why would anyone go into the field of special ed if they were disdainful of children with special needs? In my own experience, besides having infinite patience, these people usually care deeply about the kids.
"While I can't interpret this situation, what I can say broad-scale is that education has become lower-valued and the resources may not be there. There is nowhere near the training there needs to be, both in terms of sensitivities, recognition and skills that all teachers—special needs or not—need. Aides are not all that well-trained, in fact, and are very poorly paid."
So you're saying that cutbacks in schools could have an effect on teacher's behavior? Not that it excuses calling a child a "bastard!"
"Certainly frustration about lack of education resources and anger in general and feeling incompetent could be a cause. No matter what the job, a person who isn't feeling successful because they don't have skills or resources is more prone to behaving unprofessionally. And these days, people don't have a filter. There's been a general lowering of social standards, and there is far more rudeness in general in society and fewer inhibitions to say whatever you want."
What's important for parents to keep in mind about keeping kids safe?
"Your child's school should have an open-door policy. Pay a surprise visit every now and then, but in the friendliest of ways! Go in to see how he's doing. It is a form of surveillance, but the fact of the matter is, school should be a place where parents are welcome—and professional standards are met. More resources for better training for teachers and aides would undoubtedly help a lot, but short of that it doesn't mean everything's hopeless. There needs to be an open relationship between the administration, parents and teachers."
What should parents be on the lookout for?
"You know your child far better than anyone else! In fact, there's some evidence that parents are better diagnosticians of developmental delays better than professionals like pediatricians. It's terrific these parents noted unusual behavior and did something about it. If your child is acting out, having more tantrums or behaving differently, pay attention. Kids will try every which way to communicate. The best advice for parents in general is let your gut be your guide."
Here's where you can sign Stuart Chaifetz's petition requesting that New Jersey officials fire teachers caught bullying kids.