Physical Violence Towards Special-Needs Children

Written by Taher Kameli & Chathan Vemuri

Educating children with special needs requires a heightened degree of specialized training, experience, individualized attention, patience and above all empathy beyond that required for children in general. Missteps and errors by those who do not know what they’re doing can potentially cause serious damage to both that child’s educational as well as their emotional well-being. As such, the relationship between adult supervisors/teachers/principals and children with special needs is an unequal one where the child is potentially vulnerable to errors or wrongful actions by the adult.

This is painfully apparent with the phenomena of physical abuse where school staff apply physical force against children of special needs in an effort to control or punish them.[1] This week itself, the Chicago Public Schools district (CPS) agreed to pay $400,000 in order to settle two lawsuits against CPS employees for physical abuse meted out to two students in the special-education program.[2] The two students in question were both around nine years of age at the time of the abuse.[3] Confidential video evidence for the first student (who attended Woodson Elementary School) showed one of the teachers dragging a boy by the hood of his hoodie 15-20 feet across the floor from the classroom to the stairway, after which she dragged him down two whole flights of stairs in the same manner.[4] The teacher has since been charged with felony aggravated battery, unlawful restraint and misdemeanor battery but the felony charges were later dropped as part of a plea deal when she pled guilty to the misdemeanor in an exchange for a 18-month probation sentence.[5] With regards to the other student, a guidance counselor assistant at the South Shore Fine Arts Academy was accused of choking the student until he lost consciousness and throwing him into some music stands nearby, alleging that the boy had stolen some classroom markers.[6] This same assistant was accused of abusing other elementary students on at least seven other occasions over the past four years, according to the civil lawsuit against him.[7] The assistant has since turned himself and has been charged with seven counts of felony aggravated battery.[8]

Although the staff members accused of the abuse were both charged criminally and declared ineligible for future positions, this issue is not unique to this situation.[1] In Washington D.C., the DC Public Schools system (DCPS) was sued in July 2020 over the physical abuse of four students by staff at two different schools in the DCPS system.[2] Three of these students were abused at a special-needs school called River Terrace Education Campus while the fourth was at Walker-Jones Education Campus.[3] The injuries at issue included breaking the leg of a student already in a wheelchair, locking a child in the closet and gagging a child to the point that they could not breathe.[4] Here the staff members seem to have been allowed to continue working and the parents do not seem to have been informed of the results of DCPS’s own investigation fo the allegations.[5] Yet they all claimed that it was part of a continuing pattern of behavior on the part of staff at these institutions that escalated in severity.[6]

This has been a recurring issue for more than a decade at least. According to a detailed report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) from August of 2009, legalized corporal punishment in 20 states disproportionately affected students with disabilities.[7] Texas in particular was found to have a high rate in the mid 2000s (2006-2007 school year) of 10,222 students with disabilities being subjected corporal punishment.[8] Kids with autism were found to have been commonly punished physically for exhibiting behaviors typical for their condition.[9] More seriously, such punishments were found to leave lasting damaging impacts on students with special needs, including (in addition to lasting physical injuries) lasting mental trauma, depression, withdrawal, acceptance of violence, increased tendencies to aggression, lack of educational motivation leading to dropping out of school, and  aggravation of their respective conditions.[10] Children with autism were found to be especially traumatized by physical punishments, with reports of developmental regression in basic behaviors, engaging in self-injurious behavior, increased fearfulness due to trauma of the physical attack and even reports of aggression.[11] The ACLU and HRW used this report to petition the U.S. Federal Government and the State governments to ban corporal punishment against students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 .[1] Although this was more than ten years ago, the recent cases in Chicago and Washington DC indicate that it remains a major problem today.

Jon Erickson, the attorney representing the families of the two nine year olds who sued the CPS this year and settled for $400,000, wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr in March 10, 2020 formally requesting the Department of Justice to launch a federal investigation into the treatment of children with special needs in the CPS system, alleging systematic practice of violence against special needs children, including such practices as strangulation, emotional abuse and bullying, as well as pointing to the attempted suicide of one such victim due to trauma from the abuse and not wanting to return to school as a result.[2] This week, in relation to the recent settlement with CPS, Erickson maintained his criticisms of CPS handling of the physical abuse of special needs students, questioning whether it was following its new protocol to remove employees accused of carrying out physical abuse.[3]

Even though the ACLU-HRW study is more than ten years old, current advocates for victims of child abuse still document the negative impacts of physical abuse among children with disabilities. According to the fact sheet of Prevent Child Abuse America, a Chicago-based national organization dedicating to fighting child abuse, although there wasn’t precise information as to the extent of abuse among children with disabilities, it did find that children with seemingly “difficult” behavior and difficulties with communication could be more vulnerable to neglect, potentially leading to unreported instances of abuse.[4] As such, “indicators of abuse for children with disabilities can be more difficult to recognize.”[5] The abusers often include professionals, which would include school staff.[6] Furthermore, there are difficulties in even prosecuting these abusers due to whether the child is “credible” based on the Court’s expectations regarding physical, intellectual or communication abilities, with limited experience of individuals with disabilities leading to questioning of non-standard forms of communication from disabled students regarding abuse.[7]

If this week’s settlement of the two CPS lawsuits demonstrates anything, it is that the issue of physical abuse of children with special needs has remained as urgent as ever. Due to their disabilities, children with special needs may experience abuse or be unable to communicate

what’s going on in a way that’s understandable to those not trained in working with said children. More seriously, this abuse can have a lasting damaging impact on a child’s physical and emotional well-being, including their ability to get an education and trust a school setting. Preventing physical abuse of children with special needs is crucial to ensuring the right of these children to a free public education.

 

Please contact the Law Offices of Kameli & Associates, P.C. at info@kameli.com or call us at (312) 233-1000 if you are a parent of a child with special needs, an educator or a professional working with special needs children who has questions about this issue.

[1] Id.

[2] Phil Rogers, Citing Abuse, Chicago Attorney Calls for Federal Investigation of CPS, NBC 5 Chicago (Mar. 10, 2020) available at https://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/citing-abuse-chicago-attorney-calls-for-federal-investigation-of-cps/2234496/

[3] Hannah Leone, Chicago Public Schools Pays $400,000 to Settle Lawsuits Alleging Physical Abuse Against 2 Special Education Students By Staff, Chi. Trib. (Sept. 29, 2020, 7:25 PM) available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-chicago-public-schools-child-harm-settlements-20200930-x626rlv2cngvnppcswrmxj6uoq-story.html

[4]Fact Sheet: Maltreatment of Children with Disabilities, Prevent Child Abuse America (last viewed Oct. 2, 2020) available at https://preventchildabuse.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/maltreatmentofchildrenwithdisabilities.pdf

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id

[1] Id.

[2] Evan Lambert, Lawsuit: Special Needs Students Were Physically Abused at DCPS Schools, Fox5 Washington DC (Sept. 9, 2020) available at https://www.fox5dc.com/news/lawsuit-special-needs-students-were-physically-abused-at-dcps-schools

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Report by ACLU and HRW: Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Students With Disabilities in US Public Schools, American Civil Liberties Union (Aug. 2009) available at https://www.aclu.org/impairing-education-corporal-punishment-students-disabilities-us-public-schools-html#toc20

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[1] Nate Robson, For Special-Needs Students, a Ration of Corporal Punishment, KGOU (Aug. 29, 2015) available at https://www.kgou.org/post/special-needs-students-ration-corporal-punishment

[2] Hannah Leone, Chicago Public Schools Pays $400,000 to Settle Lawsuits Alleging Physical Abuse Against 2 Special Education Students By Staff, Chi. Trib. (Sept. 29, 2020, 7:25 PM) available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-chicago-public-schools-child-harm-settlements-20200930-x626rlv2cngvnppcswrmxj6uoq-story.html

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.