Minister defends fenced-off classroom for boy with autism
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Minister defends fenced-off classroom for boy with autism

The ACT government has backed a specialist school that created a fenced-off facility to isolate a student with high needs from his peers.

Abdul-Ghani Ferkh, who has complex autism, was suspended from the Woden School in early April after running off campus to the local shops, and had since waited more than four months to return to class.

Safaa Ferkh's son Abdul wasn't allowed to go back to school for four months after a suspension.

Safaa Ferkh's son Abdul wasn't allowed to go back to school for four months after a suspension.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

This month, his family were told he could only come back under strict new conditions that ban him from interacting with other students and some staff and restrict his movements in the school to a specially-built classroom encircled by fences and a floor-to-ceiling security gate.

The school said this was the only way to ensure the safety of its staff and Abdul, but his family have labelled the set-up as inhumane and advocates have also raised concerns about Abdul's isolation.

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Following a report in The Canberra Times, Ms Berry visited the site on Friday morning and spoke to the school's principal about measures in place to support Abdul's family and staff.

"Our schools avoid restrictive practices wherever possible," she said.

"I have been assured that appropriate steps have been taken at all times and the school has rightly made safety and wellbeing the top priority."

Photos of the new facility provided by the ACT education directorate on Friday.

Photos of the new facility provided by the ACT education directorate on Friday.Credit:ACT education directorate

A spokeswoman for Advocacy for Inclusion supporting the family said Abdul had a right to an inclusive education.

"[The facility] is really concerning," she said.

"We're often brought in at the last minute [as advocates] when the damage is already done...and there's usually a lot more that should have happened to stop it getting to this point."

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It's understood both the ACT Human Rights Commission and the ACT's new watchdog for restrictive practices were notified about the case on Thursday.

While Abdul was initially eager to return to school to see his friends, his mother Safaa Joumaa-Ferkh said he became very upset when he arrived at the new facility for his first day back on Thursday and was still not himself on Friday.

"It's a big cage," she said. "I have no choice but to send him there, but I don't want to. He can't wait to come home, he looks so sad."

The set-up will be reviewed in two weeks, after which time one or two of Abdul's peers might be allowed to visit him at recess.

The school alleges Abdul had been physically destructive throughout the year, pinching staff and damaging property, as well as running away multiple times. But his family say they had been reassured repeatedly that he was doing well at school before his "shock" suspension.

Professionals who know Abdul have also questioned the decision, saying his behaviour had been improving and, while at times aggressive, was mostly gentle.

On Friday director of the ACT Council of Social Services Susan Helyar said the government's newly released future of education strategy was a good sign Canberra schools were heading in the right direction on student welfare but stressed more resources for special education were urgently needed.

"The story makes it clear we need to get this right, it's not right," she said, while also noting the importance of teacher safety.

Opposition spokeswoman for education Elizabeth Lee said there was a lack of transperancy around funding arrangements for students with special needs, despite new pledges to boost funding in the 2018 budget.

The directorate said the government had spent $2.7 million in the past two financial years to support Year 11 and 12 students at The Woden School but has not released the cost of Abdul's classroom.

Photos of the new facility provided by the ACT education directorate on Friday.

Photos of the new facility provided by the ACT education directorate on Friday.Credit:ACT education directorate

A directorate spokesman said that, while every child had a right to an education regardless of their behaviour, that right had to be weighted carefully against the safety of staff and school communities, an often difficult balancing act.

The government is in the middle of special education reforms designed to make schools more inclusive and is also reviewing its current suspension policies. Suspensions can be approved for up to 20 days, and extended only in exceptional circumstances, as new information about the incident comes to light.

In Abdul's case, the school told the family delays were due to safety concerns as they explored possible options for Abdul. The family also spent time in Lebanon.

The facility also has a large outdoor play area for Abdul. with a trampoline.

The facility also has a large outdoor play area for Abdul. with a trampoline.Credit:ACT education directorate

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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