Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why teachers abuse kids with special needs (and how to tell if something's up)

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."

You hear the aide berating Akian and saying "Shut your mouth" and a woman labeled the teacher saying to him, "Who are you talking to, nobody?" Once, after an outburst, he's told "Oh, Akian, you are a bastard." The tone of their voices is derogatory throughout.

Google around and you'll find a bunch of similarly outrageous incidents. Last month, a mom of a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy in Alabama also wired him up for school, suspicious of abuse. In the recording, Melisha Salinas heard an aide and teacher say disparaging things to her son such as, "You drooled on the paper, that's disgusting." In November, I wrote a post on about verbal abuse from a teacher and aide caught on tape by an Ohio parent of a teen girl with disabilities. Amongst the comments made: "Are you that damn dumb?" and "No wonder you don't have friends."

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.

Photo/Stuart Chaifetz


  1. Wow. What a horrifying story. And in my hometown, too (not surprising somehow). Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks for a great summary and, even more important, seeking and sharing some understanding. Not that it excuses anything that was done, but it does help make a bit of sense about it.

    The very fact that there is such a thing as "an expert on developmental disabilities and child maltreatment" says so much about what is wrong with our society and saddens me.

  3. This is one of my biggest fears. My nonverbal son would have NO WAY of telling me if someone was being mean to him at school, and that worries me.

  4. Signed!
    We watched this last night, in complete shock! Absolutely turned my stomach! Emilia would also have no way of telling us what's going on! I'm so blessed to have her in a great school now but she will only be there for preschool. After that she has to change. Something like this happening is always in the back of my mind. I'm so glad this dad took a stand and did what he did. I don't think I would have been so clever. Sad that we actually have to think that way though. we really can never let our guard down.:(

  5. No surprises here. My wife, one of the few good teachers, used to work in a childcare facility where child neglect was common and more than one child was abused sexually.

    She doesn't work there anymore.

  6. Wonderful post and information. I am so glad that you are helping to bring this story to light. As a parent of a special needs child, this situation is extremely frightening. I posted on the same topic this morning as well after being in tears last night. Together, I do believe that we parents can insure that our children get proper educational support and medical treatment. Thank you!

  7. This sickens me, but unfortunately, I'm not at all surprised. I would be interested in the "statistics" of this type of behavior in a general ed setting versus a segregated environment. This is one of the many reasons I do not believe in self-contained classrooms because I think they foster this behavior. Yes, it can happen anywhere--and it does--but even though my child is non-verbal, there are kids in his general ed class that can speak up for him. I learn a lot from the other kids in the class when I pick him up in the afternoon:-)

  8. I still cannot bring myself to listen/watch the video and I doubt that I ever will. But, thank you for answering the question I ask every time one of these stories make the front page.
    The fact that the father "knew" something was going on speaks volumes about our parental instinct. We cannot ignore it, especially with our children who cannot speak for themselves.

  9. While the content of this dialogue is shocking and hopefully rare, the yelling and mean tone are so prevalent that I think many teachers come to perceive it as a normal "classroom management" strategy.

  10. As scary and awful as this is, I fully believe that the vast majority of people in special ed are good eggs. And that no matter what, like Dr. Lutzker says, we should trust our instincts--and pay close attention to changes in our kids' behavior.

    Heather, I'm guessing yelling and mean tones aren't uncommon today. But it was the resentment in the women's voices that most shocked and saddened me, and their derogatory approach.

    Jennifer, it does seem like this would be less likely to happen in an integrated classroom (I don't believe there are stats on that). Also: In order for this kind of thing to happen, there have to be two bad eggs in a class—otherwise, a good teacher would never allow an aide to act like that, or vice versa. That would seemingly further decrease the odds of this happening.

  11. I never would have realized this. It is sickening. I used to be a resource teacher and substituted in special needs classrooms. I never saw this, but then, they probably wouldn't have put this behaviour out with a stranger. I would have reported anything even the slightest bit in this direction. I really enjoyed working with special needs, I really enjoyed finding new ways to help them learn and seeing them light up when they got it, especially when it was something that was complex.

  12. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenonmenon. Check out the book "Mommy I wish I could tell you what they did to me at school today" by Ricky Stripp. A long time special needs aide. Primarily about non-verbal children but important information for all of us.

  13. I blogged about this too ( - I think we all need to learn from this terrible case. Thank you for your very interesting take on the story by linking it too a general breakdown of good behaviour in society as well as cuts to resources in the classroom. I think that the lack of transparency in closed units can also be dangerous for all concerned. I queried whether we should allow surveillance devices in such classes to protect children and teachers (including with elderly people in nursing homes).

  14. Sadly both of my special needs kids have suffered from abuse of some kind by school workers. My oldest has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and at the time was struggling with delays as a result of neglect by birth parents. His bus picked himup at 6:45am and didn't get him to school until 8am (something I had complained about dozens of times). Like a lot of spectrum kids he becomes bored very quickly and will find what ever he can to amuse himself. This day it was kicking the seat in front of him. The bus driver told him to stop and he didn't. She picked him up by his arms, shook him violently while screaming 'Shut up...Shut the F@*% up right now!' in his face. Another parent happened to witness it from her kitchen window but by the time she was able to get outside the bus had pulled away. She reported it to the school and was told 'That's a problem for transportation not us.' the school refused to even inform me of what happened. In the end the parent called Child Protective Services and they were the ones that contacted me to let me know what had happened.

  15. The best classrooms have moms (or grandmoms) who volunteer, I think. I was horrified by this child's treatment, I can't imagine how I would feel if I were in that father's shoes.

  16. My older sister has Down's and thank the good Lord above that she is able to communicate to us when something is wrong or has happened. This is the EXACT reason I became and SLP! To know that there are children who can not communicate their BASIC NEEDS to their parents absolutely breaks my heart! To not be able to simply tell them "my teachers are hurting me, please don't send me!" I never want a child or family to have to suffer through that. I never want a parent to worry that this could be happening and someone is getting away with it simply because they think the child is "helpless" because he can not talk. We, who can talk, take communication for granted so often! Just thinking of all my sweet babies I work with, I would be heart broken to know they were being hurt and couldn't tell us! “Communication is depositing a part of yourself in another person.” -anonymous
    “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”-Anthony Robbins

  17. I think that educators abuse special needs kids out of frustration. Bc the education system now mandates the children be given an adequate education and not just allowed to doodle in the corner. However, doodling in the corner may be all the child is capable of but the parents have higher expectations of their child and may think their child is capable of something they're not. So, it puts the teacher in the position of having their job on the line to teach higher level academics to children who don't function at that level. So, the teacher caves in and finds a creative way to report progress so the boss and the parents are happy. But, the next year the kid just gets handed off to someone else who is challenged to reach the unreachable. I think that if a kid is only going to make it so far, than the teacher shouldn't have pressure to do magic tricks and then some of the abuse will subside bc the teacher won't be so worn out with the impossible expectations. If you think about it, the most kind and patient person will reach a breaking point if they are given an unachievable task in a no-win situation.

  18. These are some great tips and advice for every parent to read. I will share this info on my blog and link to yours as well. Thank you for posting this. Its very sad but this happens way more than we know or are told. My son was being hit by his aid for months until we finally found out. Principals hide this info and even make teachers afraid to turn in this type of behaviour. My sons teacher was relocated to a different school for reporting it.

  19. There is such a wide range of abilities among the special needs children. I see kids who can excel academically, but not socially, and I see kids who have tremendous social skills, but are struggling academically. That's the whole point of an IEP and special ed. classrooms. The push to mainstream those who are not ready is ridiculous; but, it is important to for the kids who are capable to learn in the least restrictive environment. What I find most infuriating is that pretty much anyone can apply to be a one on one aid. A lot of stay at home moms in our district volunteer. You do not need to have any kind of background in education. Personally, I am uncomfortable knowing that my neighbor, who has no qualifications (as well as a big mouth) could be an aide in my son's classroom. There definitely need to be more programs available to kids with needs. We are fortunate in our school district because we have a great special ed. department, but we are also in a position of not being able to just pick up and move anywhere because there are not enough schools elsewhere that provide options for special education classrooms. The aid mentioned in the above post should not only have been fired, but she should have been publically humiliated for her abuse, and she and the principal should be banned from working in the education field permanently. If I ever find out that anyone touches my child, I will not be quiet for one second!!!


Thanks for sharing!

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