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‘An animal wouldn’t be treated this way’: 35% of children with disabilities secluded or restrained at school, poll shows

Campaigners call for urgent guidance and regulation for schools in managing pupils’ behaviour

Parents have shared allegations of their children being mistreated in schools as part of a new survey which indicates that more than a third of children with disabilities have experienced unregulated seclusion or restraint as a way of managing their behaviour.

Unlike in children’s residential care, there are no detailed guidelines on the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. In addition, the Department of Education does not require schools to provide data on these types of interventions.

Inclusion Ireland, which represents children with intellectual disabilities and AsIAm, an autism charity, polled more than 400 parents online over recent days. Some 35 per cent of respondents said their children with disabilities experienced seclusion, while 27 per cent said their children had been restrained at school.

Parents also shared stories of children who, in extreme cases, were locked in rooms alone, dragged across school floors or physically held and lifted against their will. Families also reported feeling powerless and fearing retribution and the removal of vital supports if they protested against these measures.


The two groups have called for new guidance and regulations for schools which would govern seclusion and restraint.

One parent told The Irish Times that his autistic child, now aged 10, was left alone in a school hallway and taunted with being humiliated in front of his class if he did not calm down.

“I wouldn’t have believed it except it was all recorded, by accident, on his Apple watch,” the father said. “It was a shocking level of emotional abuse. I took him and his brother out of school last March. We complained, but it didn’t go anywhere.”

Another parent recalled how her child in fifth class, diagnosed with Asperger’s, was “rugby-tackled” by a teacher when he attempted to leave the school hall, where the class was rehearsing a Christmas play.

“She held him there for a while and shouted at him about how struggling was futile due to her superior strength,” one parent said.

Another described how her son was “dragged across a school floor into a ‘safe space’ [seclusion room] where he stripped naked multiple times due to distress. The door was held shut [by] multiple persons… An animal would not be treated this way”.

One parent described how a teacher allegedly removed their son’s hands from his ears twice when overstimulated with noise, while another said their daughter was bruised from being “lifted by arms and legs” and placed in a sensory room and told “she wasn’t allowed leave”.

Derval McDonagh, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, said that while pupils have a right to feel safe at school, the treatment of some children with disabilities was “hugely damaging and a violation of their rights”.

“In many cases these children are desperately trying to advocate for themselves and are being told over and over again from very young that what they have to say doesn’t matter and who they are is wrong,” she said.

“Meanwhile, parents share with us feeling powerless and facing persistent gaslighting. Not only is there no guidance for schools, there is no support for those who are guardians to these kids.”

Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm, said the results were a “deeply distressing” snapshot of failures to safeguard and meet the rights of autistic and neurodivergent children.

He said while the Department of Education had a statutory duty to uphold human rights, children had been waiting five years for promised guidelines.

“Day in, day out, our organisations hear from families who have had alarming experiences in terms of seclusion and restraint within the classroom and a number of these cases have been the subject of various statutory investigations and processes and yet there has been a lack of urgency on this critical issue,” he said.

Draft guidelines, seen by The Irish Times, will end the use of seclusion for vulnerable pupils with “behaviours of concern”. In addition, the physical restraint of pupils will not be permitted except in crisis situations where there is a risk to a student’s safety or the safety of others.

In a recent statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education confirmed it was in the process of developing child-centred guidelines regarding behaviours of concern which focus on “creating a whole-school positive approach that emphasises prevention and early intervention”.

She said a training programme for schools would accompany the guidelines which would be trialled with a small number of special schools before being published in the first quarter of this year.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent