More than 500 child protection complaints were received about staff members specifically relating to children with special needs or a disability in the last year alone, according to Department of Education figures.
The information – based on the NSW Budget Estimates 2017/2018 – was in response to supplementary Questions and Inquiry into the Education of Students with a Disability or Special Needs in NSW Schools.
According to the figures, there were 63 allegations of sexual abuse in 2017, representing a three-fold increase from 2016. Physical abuse allegations more than doubled over the same time, and allegations of ill-treatment more than quadrupled.
The figures come as research shows the Australian government continuing to fail the country’s most vulnerable children almost 30 years after signing the UN Children’s Convention.
The over-arching findings of The Children’s Report, is being released today by the Australian Child Rights Taskforce at the same time it is submitted to the United Nations Children’s Committee.
“With over five million children in Australia, we should be ensuring that the decisions we make, which impact on the lives of children and young people now and in the future, are made with them in mind and include processes for them to have their say as citizens and significant stakeholders,” said Tony Stuart, CEO of UNICEF Australia.
“This report clearly demonstrates the extent to which our country is letting many of our children down – particularly our most vulnerable and disadvantaged - by failing to recognize and accommodate their obvious expertise in the development of policies and programs intended to support and shape their lives.”
David Roy, a lecturer of education at the University of Newcastle who has worked as an advocate of children with a disability since 2015, called the trend “deeply concerning”.
“Children with a disability are three times more likely to be abused, and non-verbal children ten times more likely,” Roy told The Educator.
“They are the most vulnerable students in society and thus the easiest targets for those wishing to hurt children. The systems need to recognise this and have extra safeguards for children with a disability whom are less likely to make false allegations.”
There have been calls for “urgent reforms” to Australia’s education system following revelations of widespread bullying against children with a disability.
A national survey by Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA), published in June, found that more than 56% of students with disabilities had experienced bullying over a 12-month period.
The survey revealed that these students are experiencing a range of physical and psychological bullying from other students, and in some cases have even been told to take their own lives.
Roy says “automatic investigations” should happen and at a minimum, alleged abusers transferred away from the most vulnerable children.
“We protect clothing better than children, so one option may have to be CCTV in classrooms with non-verbal children with a disability, with clear security safeguards in place,” he said.
Despite declaring support for all 39 recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into education for students with a disability, the NSW Government has refused to fully support two key recommendations of the report, including that the government urgently implement the NSW Ombudsman's proposals in its Inquiry into behaviour management in schools.
Roy has called for Australia to have its own ICAC for abuse complaints, citing a lack of trust from parents and staff towards EPAC, the independent body that currently investigates abuse complaints against children.
“Systems should not investigate themselves as has been seen with the two most Royal Commissions,” Roy said.
“There are too many reported incidents highlighting a lack of rigour in dealing with complaints. With home schooling rising by 19% in NSW it is clear that families do not trust the system.”
Roy says an independent investigative body would be able to investigate “dispassionately”, allowing staff and families to “have trust that justice was placed before system self-preservation”.
Earlier this year the NSW Education Minister tabled the Government’s response to the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Education of Students with Disability or Special Needs in NSW, supporting all 39 recommendations.
The NSW Education Department said it regarded the mistreatment of any student by staff as unacceptable, adding that any allegation of this occurring is “treated seriously and investigated”.
“The Department welcomed the inquiry and the findings that there are many examples of excellent practice within NSW public schools,” a spokesperson for the Department told The Educator.
The spokesperson added that the Department will be strengthening the system and is currently developing a new Disability Strategy.