Monday, November 17, 2014

A girl caged at school: A disturbing reminder that we are our kids' protectors

There's comfort in knowing you have a team of people helping you raise your child: doctors, therapists, teachers and other experts. But really, it comes to this: You are your child's best advocate—and protector. I was thinking about this over the weekend after a reader let me know about some horrifying news out of Fresno, California: a 7-year-old girl with special needs suffered abuse at school in plain sight.

When parent Ledelldra Brooks visited her daughter's classroom at Viking Elementary in May, unannounced, she found her daughter in a makeshift cage assembled from a toddler gate and crib attached to two bookshelves. As reported by The Fresno Bee, Brooks pulled her daughter out of the class, called the principal and alerted the police. Investigators came and took apart the enclosure.

Eventually, Brooks hired an attorney and submitted claims to the school district. Last week, Fresno Unified's Board rejected the mother's claims. Brooks' attorney, Peter Alfert, intends to file a lawsuit

Internal district emails show the school quickly got the 7-year-old, who has intellectual disability and a seizure disorder, into a new school. The teacher was placed on administrative leave...but now works at another elementary school.

The police report includes interviews with two aides who says that children were put in the gated area only when they were out of control, or posed a risk to themselves. On the day in question, Brooks' daughter had supposedly been disruptive and scratched an aide, why she was caged. Principal Christine Yang told authorities that the enclosure, three years old, was a safety precaution, and she'd seen children inside it before.

Yes: The principal wasn't just aware, she didn't seemingly have an issue with this setup.

Caging children—even to help them calm down—can do psychological harm. "It's a cage, this is what you would put a wild animal in," said Joe Bowling, executive director for the regional board of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. "Obviously there are people in the district that need training. I can't believe that somebody, an administrator walking in that room and seeing it, would allow that."

We've been lucky to have had good teachers and class aides in Max's life. We had an issue with one bus aide several years ago—a sweet woman who, we found out, was seating Max in an unsafe and uncomfortable way. I raised heck about it. Then I demanded to know what training protocols the bus company had, and how they ensured drivers and aides followed them. The head of the bus company took issue with my questions. I didn't care; the fact that the aide didn't know what she was doing—and that nobody at the bus company was aware of that—raised alarm bells. Eventually, Max's bus got a new aide.

Of course, there are always two sides to every story. Here's another perspective from a Facebook reader who left a comment noting that her child, who is in a wheelchair, is in a class with a new student who has autism and ADHD. That student can get out of control, and has sent one teacher to the hospital after biting her; another teacher ended up on crutches. A one-to-one aide isn't an option because of budget reasons. As she writes, "I hold no animosity towards this kid at all. He is how he is. He needs help and so does the teacher. They have a corner of the room that they set up as a safety corner for him that had a gate. They could put him in there where he could play safely without harming anyone and my son could get out of his wheelchair and his floor chair. The administration said they couldn't do it and they don't have the gate anymore."

This, too, is troubling. The decision not to gate the child seems right—yet wrong, because the school has not offered up another solution and it's endangering both students and teachers. It seems like this mother will now have to advocate for her child's right to be in a safe environment where he is free to move around.

All children, special needs or not, need their parents' eyes and ears and, as is necessary, our big mouths. But our children with special needs require extra monitoring and advocacy, especially when they are unable to speak up or for themselves or defend themselves. What happened in Fresno is a sobering reminder that it's up to us parents to keep an eye on the the people keeping an eye on our children. As my friend Erica said on Facebook, "I'll never stop being that mom that is aware of and involved in my child's academic and therapeutic environments. Annoying? I'm OK with that label."


  1. I am on both sides of this. On one hand, what happened to this child was wrong. On the other hand, a babysitter for my family has had two back surgeries because a special needs student attacked her and she wasn't strong enough to hold him off her.

  2. I'm autistic and I find this unacceptable. Being in a cage is horribly dehumanizing! I think teachers target kids with intellectual disabilities because they know they might not be able to speak up.

  3. Times change
    35 years ago I was working in a large Intensive Care Unit of a community teaching hospital
    It was late January in the depths of an influenza outbreak--multiple desperately ill patients with pneumonia on ventilators (so many in fact, elective surgeries were canceled and those that could not be stayed in the recovery room overnight or until they were well enough to be transferred to a general surgical unit.)
    One morning our head nurse was called about a new admission--an 8 year old girl with Down Syndrome--she had pneumonia and needed intravenous antibiotics--normally she would have been on the pediatric unit but they were also inundated with sick kids
    This little girl did not talk--she grunted and screamed, was not toilet trained, ate with her hands--no silverware, she did not follow commands, would not stay in bed, when she did get up she walked with an unsteady gait.
    Her pediatrician insisted she be in the ICU so she could be closely watched
    The parents wanted to know where our cage cribs were--she had had one at the pediatric hospital where her heart surgery was performed
    Our hospital did not have any cage cribs--the parents were appalled--"she will get hurt" they cried and she nearly did many times
    It was a very long week for everyone, the child's parents, the ICU staff, the other patients and their families

  4. No matter how old they get or how much they don't want us to be "annoying", it is part of our job as parents, no matter if our kids have disabilities or not. My NT kids still need me too, and they are 19 and 20. My 15 yr old with Down Syndrome still needs me too.

  5. I would opt for a gate. It's not infantile or dehumanizing and it is effective.

  6. Putting a kid in a cage is absolutely wrong -- period.

    However, letting a kid with SN attack and injure their classmates is every bit as wrong too.

    All kids deserve to be safe at school -- and all kids deserve to be placed in the least restrictive classroom environment. A kid who is a danger to themself or their classmates requires a more restrictive setting, for the time being.

  7. This is horrible. To parents: Always be vigilant.

  8. Responding quickly, but technically, I believe the law says that 'budget' is not an excuse to not provide FAPE. I know it seems illogical, but the reality is, if the child needs an aide/one:one to be provided FAPE, the school district needs to shift resources to make that happen, not build a cage. I agree that a "safety corner" sounds and "feels" different than a cage, so I guess I can't totally judge that situation without knowing more.

  9. It is appalling that a child was locked in that- aside from the cage aspect, it looks unsafe. So suspend for a moment that it is a cage and that is unacceptable. Bookshelves on wheels, with some gates screwed into them on one side- thats an "accident" with a serious injury waiting to happen, regardless. Especially if they use that as a "calm down space". What if the girl had a seizure and hit her head on something? They would have to drag her out or dismantle the structure.
    I can understand the aides were desperate in choosing to use this. The problem to me seems systemic- not in this school specifically, but throughout the US. The difficulty of getting appropriate resources and budget is a problem at all levels of care (school, child or adult facilities, etc). I've been put in a "quiet room" (totally legally- i was in an inpatient mental health unit at the time) and it was awful. And lonely. And that was with staff constantly watching you. I've also been in a situation while babysitting (child with autism, generally quiet but occasionally outbursts that could get physical). We were out, and s/he got overwhelmed, and took off through a parking lot. When i tried to stop her/him (bear hug) s/he continued pulling my hair and biting and scratching (s/he was hard to get into the bear hug). I ended up putting her/him into my car while i stood outside until s/he calmed down. I stayed right next to the car, and kept the driver door (it was a 2-door car) open a bit for air. I regret the action, but did not feel i had any better options at the time. For her/his safety and mine. Running around a parking lot is not safe for the child. Being bitten and scratched is not ideal for me. If i felt the bear hug was sufficient restraint i would have stuck with that despite the personal injury (less restrictive), however i was having trouble holding her/him (weighed more than i did- ~160 for the child (10-14), and me about 140). Now, the building of this cage is a long term not in the moment panic decision, but i would imagine it grew out of an in the moment panic situation, and then since it was there was used more and more often for less intense behaviors.
    when i worked at a facility for children and adults with DD/ID/BI, the documentation needed for any restraint (including a hand-over-hand- basically just holding your hand(s) on top of theirs to prevent self-injurious-behavior attempts) was extensive. The most extensive restraint (4-point hold- a person for each limb) required a call to the on-duty supervisor as soon as possible, releasing the restraint every 15 minutes (you could go immediately back in before finishing release if necessary, but ideally reduce to a 3 or 2 point and down to a bear hug style)). Since the restraint used staff, the person was fully monitored. And any sort of body restraint like that had a review after the fact to determine steps to prevent it.
    How does a school not have something like this? If behaviors are not addressed in the IEP, why dont that have a BIP (behavior intervention plan)? And how is there not some law about restraint (seclusion is defined as a type of restraint) and protocol around it? How does a school have so much less regulation?
    I think the teacher and aides should be held accountable for this, however i dont think they should be held at fault for it- the problem came from above, by the approval of the principal, a lack of resources and training, and likely other systemic problems. and focusing on them specifically is ignoring the cause and only dealing with the symptoms.


Thanks for sharing!

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