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Click here to download NAA’s white paper on student abuse and the need for cameras in self-contained classrooms.

We need your help.

The National Autism Association has been the leading national organization addressing the critical safety needs of children most severely affected.  We’ve made progress on some issues, such as wandering-related initiatives.  Now, we need to tackle the problem of student abuse.

At NAA, we follow trends via daily news alerts to see if problems facing families affected by autism are on the rise.  In our view, the number of reports of students being subjected to abuse, particularly in isolated self-contained classrooms, highlights a growing area of grave concern.

The issue suddenly became front-burner in south Texas about two years ago when Fox News 26 special projects reporter Greg Groogan began reporting on this dangerous trend. An award winning journalist and the father of an affected child, Greg has documented more than half a dozen confirmed cases of abuse in the Houston area alone in that timeframe.

These reports include:

  • A ten-year old with Down Syndrome who came home with scratches and heavy bruising
  • A nine-year old student with autism who was repeatedly imprisoned in a closed file cabinet by her special-ed teacher
  • A teacher who disciplined a student with autism by spraying water in his face at point blank range
  • A boy with severe autism who came home with multiple bruises and abrasions
  • Several students in a classroom who were forced to put vinegar-soaked cotton balls in their mouths or run on treadmills at a painful pace as a means to get them to complete work

Families are taking notice, and they are talking to their legislators in Texas.

Building on this momentum, disability advocates in our state have been working toward legislation that would require cameras in self-contained classrooms in response to multiple media reports of confirmed abuse in these educational settings.   The Texas legislature meets only every two years for 140 days.  If you have legislation you want passed or amended, you have a very short window and the pace is unbelievably frantic.

If we are going to get this done in Texas, now is the time.

It’s no surprise to parents of children significantly affected by autism that their kids are uniquely vulnerable to abuse due to many factors:  classrooms with closed doors, often inadequate training for teachers and aides, inappropriate staffing levels, children with sometimes challenging behaviors who may not be able to report what happens at school.  The explosion in autism rates has brought some school districts to the brink of disaster as they struggle to catch up with rapidly increasing numbers of students who have a high level of need.  For many families who have no insurance coverage for autism-related therapies, the public school is the only resource they have to help their children.  It’s no wonder IEP meetings have become war zones as caregivers vie for scarce resources.  Even squeaky wheels often don’t get the grease.

Self-contained classrooms, as the name implies, essentially sequester students, teachers and aides behind closed doors for the majority of the school day.  There is usually little movement between these environments and general education environments.  Since it’s desirable (and often cheaper) for school districts to educate a student in the least restrictive environment (LRE), self-contained classrooms should be near last when considering a child’s instructional setting.  The driver for falling back on this restrictive placement is often the intensity of support a student requires both to learn and to maintain self-regulation (or, in common vernacular, behave appropriately for the situation).  Parents are often forced to trade off a more inclusive, less restrictive setting for these exclusive, segregated settings.  The stated reason is normally that this is the setting the student requires to make progress.  Often, though, it is because school districts are hesitant to provide appropriate support in more inclusive settings or have not been successful remediating behaviors using peer-reviewed proven approaches.

NAA’s new white paper discusses in greater length what should ideally be happening to help alleviate this problem.  There are so many moving parts to this issue though, there is no quick fix, and our children can’t wait.  One short-term solution (admittedly a band-aid but we have to stop the bleeding somehow) is the use of cameras to provide documentary evidence to rule abuse in or out when it’s suspected.  This is only step one in a multi-step process necessary to protect vulnerable children.

Our hope is that we can make progress in Texas’ schools and inspire a broad transformation in how schools, legislators and policy-makers view their responsibility to protect the safety of students who, this report seeks to prove, are in danger.

YOU CAN HELP by forwarding this white paper to school administrators, legislators and policy makers, as well as disability advocacy organizations (whether they are specific to autism or not, since this affects children of varying disabilities).  Please, do this NO MATTER WHERE YOU LIVE. 

I’d like to close by saying I believe the majority of teachers are dedicated individuals who have made tremendous positive impact in the lives of students affected by autism.  In a very real sense, they have been left “holding the bag” as federal agencies wring their hands about sky-rocketing autism rates.  They are on the front lines for families who may have no other options — no money to pursue treatment and therapy that could improve their children’s outcomes.  I know countless teachers who spend money out of their own pockets for school supplies, and who spend many hours outside the classroom managing the avalanche of paperwork involved in special education.  I salute them as heroes in the face of this epidemic.

But we can’t turn our backs on the growing number of students, most of whom will never be able to tell us what has happened and who may be subject to chronic abusive practices, in our fight to protect our loved ones’ safety.

It is sad that it has come to this.  I am a big believer in personal privacy.  But when a non-verbal child with autism is being locked in a file cabinet, stuffed in a duffel bag, hit, kicked, derided for their disability — all undetected and perpetrated by an adult entrusted with their care — I say privacy be damned.  Let’s get to work protecting these students while we tackle the larger problem of getting schools the resources they need for our kids.

Information for families

If you are concerned that your child is being abused at school, you should be aware that it is a legal issue, not just an educational issue.  You will need to make an assessment regarding contacting Child Protective Services or the police.  Be sure to document all communication meticulously, and take photographs if you see evidence of maltreatment.  You may also need to visit your pediatrician or family doctor to document any suspected injuries.  A child psychologist or therapist who is familiar with autism spectrum disorders might shed light on whether your child has undergone emotional trauma, which is often overlooked.   You may also choose to seek help and have witnesses present before you question your child.

If you have filed a report, you have a right in parallel to utilize complaint procedures outlined in the Procedural Safeguards.  You may also contact your state’s Protection and Advocacy organization or your State Board of Education to learn more about resolving complaints.  If your child has challenging behavior, you will need to assure they have received a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and if needed a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).


Leslie Phillips
NAA Board Member