Little cause for optimism in school cage inquiry outcome


If ACT Education director-general Diane Joseph and her boss, Education Minister Joy Burch, have been examining their consciences, it was not readily apparent at the press conference  on Tuesday when the inquiry findings were announced. Ms Joseph said "principals will be held accountable for their decisions", and declared that the directorate had appointed a "director for families and students" with carriage of student safety and wellbeing to make sure there was no repetition. Ms Burch said she'd been frustrated and upset by the time it had taken (165 days) the directorate to complete its inquiry, and that Canberra families had "been sold short".Since the identities of all the individuals involved in the school cage scandal have been withheld, their reactions to the inquiry which examined how and why a 10-year-old autistic boy student came to be locked up in March can only be guessed at. The school's principal – who was found to be primarily at fault and who will not be "returning to a school" as a result – is probably mortified. The Education Directorate bureaucrats whose handling of the initial complaint was found to be remiss may be similarly remorseful.

The principal's decision to order a two-metre by two-metre structure built to separate or calm an unruly special-needs student was a serious error of judgment, made worse by her apparent failure to seek prior directorate approval – and by the fact that "locking up" children has been regarded as beyond the pale for years. But withdrawal spaces are not unknown in schools. Indeed, since mainstream schools have begun enrolling more special-needs students, these spaces have assumed a greater prominence and importance.

Segregating an unruly and unresponsive child for his or her own safety and that of other pupils – and in a way that enables close monitoring of that child – would strike many people as a not-unreasonable proposition. Their judgment might be different, however, were the space to be overtly cage-like in appearance, as this was.

In the sense that the idea was sound or well intentioned but the execution mishandled, people may feel a degree of sympathy for the principal. That enrolments of special needs students have risen by 25 per cent over the past four years may warrant further commiseration, particularly since it's not clear the directorate has prepared or resourced public schools to adequately meet the challenges of students with disability. The clearest indication that progress on this front has been dilatory was the government's decision in April to appoint University of Canberra academic Tony Shaddock to review special education across the territory.

However, the public got no admissions or hints of institutional failings or weaknesses from Ms Burch or Ms Joseph on Tuesday, much less an expressions of regret over this episode. It was just "an isolated example of very poor decision making", which would not be repeated. The vast mismatch between Ms Burch's rhetoric and her administrative record means the public can have little confidence in this particular prediction.

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A look back on Canberra's boy in the cage affair

When ACT Education Minister Joy Burch called a press conference for April 2 to discuss what she called a "serious complaint about an ACT school", few could have expected just how serious the news would be.

Ms Burch and Education Director-General Diane Joseph carefully described how a 10-year-old boy with autism had been placed in a cage-like structure in a Canberra school.

This so-called serious complaint was quickly understood for what it really was: a fundamental failure by the education system.

The two-metre by 2m cage, made of blue pool fencing and designed to be a withdrawal space, was built in a room adjacent to a classroom on March 10. It was dismantled on March 27, a day after directorate officials became aware of its existence.

Costing more than $5000, the cage had a roof, a self-closing door and a latch.

Despite any semantics, the cage represented a failure in care for a child with disabilities and his family, and a possibly career-defining error of judgment by a school principal who was placed on administrative duties.

It again raised questions about the performance of Ms Burch, the latest of high profile controversies connected to her portfolio.

Urging caution on reporting about the matter, Ms Burch said the government was being careful not to release personal information about the child or the school.

She launched an independent investigation and said a report was expected within weeks.

If there was any strategic intent of minimising media coverage by announcing the incident a day before the Easter long weekend, it backfired. April 2 is World Autism Day, significant for advocates and families and growing awareness.

Revelations about a boy in a cage sent the story around the world.

A second review was announced in early May, considering how schools deal with challenging behaviour. Led by Professor Tony Shaddock, it was to consider complex needs students and at the use of "exclusionary withdrawal".

By the middle of June, confusion remained over the status of the cage inquiry. Ms Burch's own deadline had long passed but the Assembly was told key people were on leave. The same day, the inquiry was said to be "close to conclusion".

On June 18, with 10 weeks already passed and facing more criticism from school parents, there was still now report.

Ms Burch set a new deadline of three weeks as Australian Education Union ACT secretary Glenn Fowler described the government's initial response as unrealistic.

Facing growing criticism, Ms Burch refused to answer questions in Estimates hearings about who had authorised the cage, who had built it and how it was paid for. She accused opposition education spokesman Steve Doszpot of using the affair as a "political football".

Again in June the report was said to be "close" but it was not released as July came and went.

Ms Burch eventually sought to move pressure onto directorate boss Diane Joseph in late August, saying she had strong concerns over the delays.

On Tuesday, five months after the cage was first announced, a tense press learned of the report's findings. The principal had lost her job after being identified as the sole instigator of the cage.

She would not return to lead any school. She had paid for the cage with school funds and no one in the directorate had given any approval.

Ms Burch said she retained confidence in Ms Joseph's leadership and took ultimate responsibility for what happened in schools but said neither would resign.

The message was the principal had been exclusively at fault.

Bureaucrats still face sanctions after failing to act on the first advice about the cage in March, including not appropriately escalating concerns from families. Ms Joseph refused to say how many public servants were being disciplined or if any would lose their jobs.

After 165 days, Ms Burch conceded the system had "sold Canberra families short…and it will never happen again."

She returned to attack mode a day later, criticising The Canberra Times for publishing the shocking photo of the cage, claiming showing the public what had happened inside a Canberra school amounted to a violation of the privacy and dignity of the child and family members.

Her office confirmed Ms Burch had seen a photo of the cage before it became public, but it was in black and white and taken from a different angle.

Another photo emerged on Friday, appearing to show a child inside the cage which was under a sign described it as a "sanctuary".

Since the government was renewed under Andrew Barr less than a year ago, Ms Burch has faced criticism in political circles and the media. Now a year from the election campaign, her performance is under close scrutiny.

Weeks after Simon Corbell called time on his own political career, she will seek to avoid more controversies. For the government, this week the cage once again became an "inappropriate structure". This was an "isolated incident" and the actions of "one individual".

The Assembly returns on Tuesday and Ms Burch remains a clear target for the opposition.


Truth has been caged

Letters to the Editor



The editorial "Little cause for optimism in school cage inquiry outcome" (Times2, September 10, p2) was spot on, though rather restrained. Everyone with insight knew what the issues were regarding the "caged" student within 24 hours of it becoming known. That an inquiry took months is abysmal and inexcusable. One suspects that most of the time was required only to massage what was already obvious, and decide who to tinplate and who to scapegoat.

Special needs children have ... er ... special needs. If the system decides to place them in ordinary schools then that system is obliged to provide for those special needs adequately and not put principals in an impossible situation trying to balance the rights of the special needs child with the rights of other children. I know well one primary school child who was forced to sit beside an endearing but disruptive and occasionally dangerous child, with no one to protect her from being poked in the eye with a pencil at random times but herself.

This should never occur. Obviously in the cage case the scapegoated principal was trying to fulfil their duty of care to the other children by preventing danger and unnecessary disruption to classes.

Experience shows that schools are often not provided with the necessary extra resources to do this. Is that the principal's fault? How many times have schools requested extra assistance and been refused, or more often, been given inadequate or part-time assistance? What should they then do? Who is responsible when other children are injured, or unable to learn properly, or traumatised?

Julian Robinson, Narrrabundah

What a amazing display of arrogance by Joy Burch and her director-general at their media conference covering the "boy in the cage" case.

In terms of responsibility, not only should the principal have been removed, but the director-general should have resigned. The buck stops with her.

The disturbing behaviour of these two women! No apology to the boy and his family, no sense of guilt, no taking of questions from the media, and then they both skulked down the corridor as fast as they could.

The excellent editorial published in August in The Canberra Times outlined this minister's dismal performance, and another editorial on September 10 proved it even more.

Burch's portfolio's record for 2015: the poker machine limit scandal (of which the Chief Minister was unaware).

A decision recently taken by Simon Corbell regarding his political future should be considered by Joy Burch!

Heather Ponting, Greenway

Having had at times to deal with almost uncontrollable and sometimes powerful children in a taxi to and from school I am very well aware of the potential for disaster that can occur. I am sympathetic to the problems of integrating these children into the system but I don't think enough thought has gone into the mechanics of the task.

I well remember one young boy who I regularly transported who used to sit in apparent uncomprehending silence for the whole journey. I did keep trying to slip in a few comments as we travelled. Then one day he spontaneously remarked on something that was on the road with us. I felt like a dog with two tails that morning.

Fredrik Limacher, Kambah

The real issue of classroom's caged child being ignored

Letters to the Editor



  What now for the 10-year-old who was locked behind bars at school? What now for all children with disabilities who don't have a voice of their own? What now for our society with leaders at all levels who want to pack off all the people with all the problems they don't want to deal with? Not enough heart and certainly not enough smarts.

 Nargis Carnahan, Narrabundah  

     In the age of "let the managers manage", it doesn't sound unreasonable to sack the school principal for organising the construction of a cage to constrain a reportedly "autistic child". However, what is a child – autistic or otherwise – doing in an ordinary classroom if its behaviour is so uncontrollable that a very experienced teacher, the school principal, is driven to see a cage as the solution? 

Why do the teachers in that classroom have to endure the stress of trying to teach while dealing with such behaviour? 

And why do that child's classmates have to have their studies disrupted by a child who should clearly be somewhere else? 

Having found their scapegoat, Joy Burch and her education director have sloped their shoulders. They shouldn't have. The buck doesn't stop with the principal; it stops with them.

 Bronis Dudek,  Calwell