We know that discrimination negatively impacts on the ability of students with a disability to participate and maximise their potential in the school environment.
In our experience, schools work hard to provide a broad range of reasonable adjustments to support students with disabilities. Schools are generally familiar with the requirements under state and federal anti-discrimination laws that students with a disability have access to education on the same basis as their peers.
Vulnerability of students with a disability to child abuse or risk of harm
What schools may be less familiar with is the vulnerability of students with a disability to child abuse or risk of harm. This vulnerability is well documented. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard evidence that children with a disability can face additional barriers to disclosure of child abuse or harm. Students with a disability are also more likely to be subjected to restraint or seclusion and are more likely to be bullied. The importance of protecting the safety, welfare and best interests of children with a disability is reflected in the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, which includes a key principle that equity is upheld, and diverse needs respected in policy and practice. Ministerial Order 1359, which implements the Child Safe Standards for Schools in Victoria, reinforces this principle by legally requiring schools to pay particular attention to the needs of students with disabilities.
Actions for schools to take to ensure child safety for students with a disability
So what does this all mean and what actions can schools take to ensure child safety for students with a disability?
Below are just a few tips for schools to ensure child safety for students with a disability and comply with their legal obligations:
- Develop a clear and comprehensive Child Safety Policy and Procedure that (amongst other matters) provides guidance for workers on their responsibilities to identify, prevent and respond to child abuse or risk of harm. It is important to monitor compliance with this Policy and Procedure and ensure workers are aware of it and understand it.
- Apply a risk management treatment to special support arrangements which may result in more vulnerable situations for students with disabilities, for example, assistance with toileting.
- Have appropriate and effective systems in place to effectively identify, prevent and respond to child safety issues. This system should set out how students with disabilities may respond to abuse differently, and consideration needs to be given to ensuring that supports and reporting avenues are friendly to students with disabilities. Schools should apply the usual lens of “reasonable adjustments” to these supports and reporting avenues as well as other scholastic offerings.
- Model and champion a child safe culture and find opportunities to make strong statements to workers about this.
- Equip workers with appropriate training and information. This should include training on recognising the indicators of child abuse or risk of harm and understanding when and how to report concerns, suspicions or allegations. Critically, though, do not wait for students to disclose abuse or wait for staff to “spot” red flags or signs of abuse. Prevention is key, with one key aspect being the introduction in your staff code of conduct of “unacceptable” and “acceptable” behaviours. This is important in empowering all staff and students to recognise and call out the “unacceptable” behaviours, which we know can often constitute grooming and escalate from apparently “minor”, but unchallenged, incidents.
- Appoint Child Safety Officers and ensure they are provided with appropriate and regular training and information to perform their role effectively. Ensure their training contains information about how to support students with disabilities.
- If a child safety issue arises, ensure there is an appropriate response and investigation in line with legal obligations and the school’s commitment to child safety, and that any interviews with students take account of the student’s disability and are trauma-informed.
How we can help
Our Child Safety team can help you to develop a best practice Child Safety Policy and Procedure and Child Safety Code of Conduct. We can also run some of the leading child safety training in Australia for both staff and for older students. If a child safety issue arises, we can support you in your response and investigation. Contact to us to hear more about these services.
Please contact us for more detailed and tailored help.
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Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek legal advice regarding the application of the law to you or your organisation.