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Pupil Abuse In Special School Secure Rooms Filmed On CCTV

October 15, 2021

An investigation has been launched into “organised abuse” at a special school in London after CCTV was discovered of pupils being physically assaulted and neglected, BBC News has learned.

The videos, found by staff, show pupils being mistreated in padded seclusion rooms between 2014 and 2017.

One parent said he didn’t know the rooms existed until he collected his “distressed” autistic son from one.

The school said it was working with the police and supporting families.

Whitefield School in Walthamstow, north-east London, has over 300 pupils aged between three and 19, many of whom have severe or complex needs and are unable to communicate verbally.

BBC News has learned that in May a staff member found a significant number of videos showing children in the school’s seclusion rooms. In some of the footage, pupils are physically assaulted and neglected.

Secure or seclusion rooms are used in schools when it is thought a pupil needs to be isolated from a classroom during the school day.

In July, the school wrote to parents about the discovery of evidence of “alleged child neglect”.

The Metropolitan Police has now reviewed a significant amount of CCTV footage and the local authority has launched an investigation into “organised and complex abuse” at the school, BBC News has learned.

This is defined as “abuse involving one or more abusers and a number of related or non-related abused children”.

In January 2017 the school was rated inadequate after an Ofsted inspection found a small number of pupils had been placed in secure rooms “for repeated and prolonged periods of time”.

The report said while the school referred to them as “calming rooms” this was “not an accurate description of the three secure, padded and bare spaces that are used”.

All three rooms at Whitefield School were poorly ventilated with doors that could not be opened from the inside, while two had no natural light and children were unable to see outside or hear clearly, according to Ofsted.

“In a significant number of cases, pupils are placed in the rooms more frequently or for longer periods of time, as their behaviour worsens,” the report said. It added there was no evidence parents had been told when their child had been placed in the room.

Following the inspection, the school wrote to parents telling them it was ending use of the rooms. Later that year the school was inspected again and given an outstanding rating.

‘It was diabolical’

One parent told the BBC he didn’t know the rooms existed until he was taken to collect his autistic son from one of the them, following problems with his behaviour.

He said his son appeared agitated and his shirt was ripped.

“He was very upset, very distressed”, he added. “I thought it was diabolical.”

The boy’s mother said her son would not have been able to communicate any experiences in the rooms because of the nature of his disability. She said she was frequently called by the school about ways to manage his behaviour but use of the rooms was never mentioned.

“You send your child to school because you expect that they’re going to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

“I think of a ‘calming room’ as a safe space: beanbags, soft lighting, bubble machines – not padded cells.”

Parents of some pupils at the school who may have spent time in the rooms have been contacted by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, but not been told whether their children have been identified in videos.

BBC News has seen a letter written by the school’s head teacher in May 2017 outlining the steps it was taking to address the Ofsted inspection.

It said it was closing the “calming rooms” but no mention was made of footage documenting their use.

That month a teacher at the school was sacked after a member of the public saw him kick a 17-year-old pupil with autism on a school trip.

Seclusion rules ‘not strong enough’

A BBC News investigation in 2018 discovered the use of isolation and seclusion rooms varied widely in schools.

It found some children spent consecutive weeks in isolation booths and more than 5,000 children with special educational needs had attended them.

Seclusion rooms are used in many schools across the country to tackle challenging behaviour and disruption.

But government guidance says “a separate room” should only be used when it is in the best interests of the child and other pupils, and locked rooms should only be considered in “exceptional circumstances”.

Rules around use of seclusion rooms are not strong enough, according to Paul Dix, who has campaigned to ban isolation rooms.

“I don’t think they could be more lax”, he said. “It seems to just rest with the culture and leadership of the individual organisation and nobody really seems too concerned about legislating.

“It’s just ludicrously Victorian to think that putting a child in a locked room is going to do anything but exacerbate the problem.”

In response to the BBC, the academy trust which runs the school said it had new leadership since the rooms were used who “promptly” reported the videos to the police and local authority after they found them.

It said it had appointed a new head teacher following the discovery and met with parents of those children who may have been affected.

It declined to say if the CCTV had been disclosed to Ofsted during its inspection.

Ofsted also declined to say if it had observed CCTV cameras during its inspection or asked to review footage.

In a statement it said it had shared some of its inspection evidence with the police at their request and could not comment further.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest said it visited the school after Ofsted’s January 2017 inspection “to ensure the safeguarding concerns raised were acted upon immediately” but only learned pupils had been filmed in the seclusion rooms when the footage was discovered in May 2021.

The Metropolitan Police said it was investigating “several allegations of child cruelty” at the school between 2014 and 2017 but there have been no arrests.

The government said it was aware of the allegations but could not comment further while a police investigation was under way.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 21, 2021 2:02 am

    As a non-diagnosed ‘neuro-divergent’ and highly sensitive boy (thus not always easy to deal with), the first and most formidable authority-figure abuser with whom I was terrifyingly trapped was my Grade 2 teacher, Mrs. Carol, in the early 1970s. Although I can’t recall her abuse against me in its entirety, I’ll nevertheless always remember how she had the immoral audacity — and especially the unethical confidence in avoiding any professional repercussions — to blatantly readily aim and fire her knee towards my groin, as I was backed up against the school hall wall. Fortunately, though, she missed her mark, instead hitting the top of my left leg. Though there were other terrible teachers, for me she was uniquely traumatizing, especially when she wore her dark sunglasses when dealing with me.

    For other students, however, there was her sole Grade 2 counterpart, Mrs. Clemens — similarly abusive but with the additional bizarre, scary attribute of her eyes abruptly shifting side to side. Not surprising, the pair were quite friendly with each other. It was rumored the latter teacher had a heroin addiction, though I don’t recall hearing of any solid proof of that. I remember one fellow second-grader’s mother going door to door in my part of town seeking out any other case of a student who, like her son, had been assaulted by that teacher. I had not told anyone about my own ordeal with my (the other) Grade 2 teacher, and I just stood there silently as my astonished mother conversed with the woman. …

    Today, almost a half-century later, I believe that not only should all school teachers have received ASD training, but that there should further be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of a child development course which in part would also teach students about the often-debilitating condition. It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, people with ASD (including those with higher functioning autism) are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when in fact such behavior is really not a choice. And how “camouflaging”, a term used to describe ASD people pretending to naturally fit in, causes their already high anxiety and depression levels to further increase.

    While some other school curriculum is controversial (e.g. SOGI, especially in rural residential settings), it nonetheless was implemented. The same attitude and policy should be applied to teaching high school students about ASD, the developing mind and, especially, how to enable a child’s mind to develop properly.

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