'Having their nipples pinched': harrowing accounts of school bullying

Every child in NSW has a legal right to access and participate in education, regardless of disability or special needs.

But Carly Landa said there were "definitely negative consequences" to sending her son to school.

Louie, now 11, went to school for three years before his parents decided to home-school him.

"For Louie, it just didn't work," she said of her son, who is on the autism spectrum. "The ideal is every student's needs are met and that every student is supported as a learner.

"But the reality just doesn't actually translate. The numbers in the classroom, the lack of support."

However, the decision to home educate children with disabilities or special needs means they do not receive the support provided to other students - a situation parents want the NSW government to address by funding services.

Schools unable to meet children's needs

A NSW parliamentary inquiry into students with a disability or special needs has been told many parents choose home education because schools do not adequately cater to their children's needs.

"Students with a disability are commonly home educated because parents believe that schools will be unable to meet their needs ... or to protect them from harm," according to the Home Education Association's submission to the inquiry.

One parent gave the inquiry a harrowing account of the bullying experienced by her 11-year-old daughter, who has a moderate intellectual disability and autism.

"She was bitten with blood drawn, hair ripped out of her head, arms twisted and bruises every day of the week," the parent, whose name was suppressed, said.

Complaints to the school were given short shrift, the parent said. "Their response was that her being hit was good opportunity to teach the hitter that they shouldn't hit."

The parent said the situation was even worse at another school, where the girl and other girls in her class were indecently assaulted by the boys.

"They were also assaulted by having their nipples pinched until they cried, had their skirts lifted and indecently touched under their pants, punched, kicked, pinched and pushed."

The inquiry, which will conduct its next hearing in Shellharbour on Friday, was told boys in the class would "regularly masturbate" in the classroom, with teachers refusing to take action to stop the behaviour.

"The principal said she could do nothing about the goings-on in the class," the parent said.

The parent said she turned to home education after the Department of Education refused her application for distance education: "I have to rely on a carer payment from Centerlink (sic). My ability to earn an income and provide for my daughter has been devastated."

The HEA's submission included the experience of a parent resorting to home education after her son, who had learning disabilities, suffered escalating violence and bullying at school.

"Things got so bad that he began to self-harm, smashing his head against walls because he felt so completely distressed," the parent said. "It was in desperation that I decided to try home education."

Nicole Rogerson, the chief executive of Autism Awareness Australia, said successive state governments had paid "lip service" to inclusion.

"Teachers are untrained and hideously under-resourced," she said. "The Education Department makes big claims as to how children with disability have a home in their local schools but rarely does it play out in practice.

"Schools are routinely discouraging parents from enrolling their children and suggesting they would be better off in a school which can cater better to that child."

Ms Rogerson said: "Other schools merely suspend children with challenging behaviour, which means the child who finds school difficult gets rewarded by not coming to school with a suspension."

'These students appear not to count'

Karleen Gribble, the disability spokeswoman for the HEA, said a "high proportion" of home-educated children have a disability or special needs, ranging from autism or anxiety to hearing and visual impairment.

Ms Gribble said children may be traumatised by negative experiences with schooling.

In contrast, the HEA's submission said children's medical conditions often improve after home education is started: "It is extremely common for children who had been prescribed medications for psychological or behavioural issues to be able to eliminate or reduce their medication."

She said exact numbers were not known because data is not collected: "Since they are not counted, these students appear not to count to government or education authorities."

A federal parliamentary inquiry recommended in 2016 the collection of data about home-schooled students with a disability as well as measures to improve educational outcomes and address bullying.

There has been a "steady increase" in the number of home-schooled children in NSW over the past 10 years, with more than 4000 students registered at the end of 2016, according to the NSW Education Standards Authority.

Of the 80 per cent of parents who provided a reason for choosing to home educate, around one in five nominated special learning needs, compared to 10 per cent in 2012, a NESA spokesman said.

Ms Landa said her son's needs were complex. Louie has been tested as gifted, but is on the autism spectrum and has anxiety. He also has dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects his ability to write.

Ms Landa said Louie's abilities in areas such as mathematics and history is at a high school level.

"Home education allows us to go beyond what they teach in school and focus on what he's interested in," she said.

A lack of support

Yet removal from the school system in NSW means that children with disabilities or special needs do not receive the support services provided to other students.

Apart from a carer allowance of around $55 a week, Ms Landa said she did not receive any funding or support for Louie's educational needs.

In contrast, other states like Western Australia provide support for home educated children.

"Families who have a child with a disability are those who often struggle the hardest to gain access to resources that their child needs because such resources can be very expensive," the HEA's submission said. "This is compounded by the fact that families are often foregoing an income in order to home educate."

The HEA is pressing for data to be collected on home educated students with disabilities and special needs as well as access to the same resources provided to other students and the option of attending school part-time.

Ms Gribble said the National Disability Insurance Scheme was a "potential" source of support but it was complicated: "For children in institutional schooling, NDIS does not provide for support for anything that it is considered the school should be providing."

A NSW Department of Education spokesman said the state government spent more than $1 billion to support 100,000 students with disability in the state's public schools.

"Students with disability are educated either in a regular or specialist support class, depending on their assessed needs and preferences of their parents, with specialist support classes planned and established annually to meet local student need," he said.

"The department also provides a wide range of professional learning and support for teachers to extend their knowledge and skills in teaching students with disability."

Tim Mulroy, the vice-president of the NSW Teachers Federation, said schools had been left without adequate resources to meet the needs of all students.

"Students with high functioning autism are now provided with a much more limited funding arrangement which needs to be addressed," he said.

Mr Mulroy said distance education centres could be utilised by students schooled at home.

"The federation's view on home schooling is that an inclusive public school setting in which a student can develop not only their academic needs but also their social competence is preferred to a situation in which the student is learning in isolation from their peers," he said.

The story 'Having their nipples pinched': harrowing accounts of school bullying first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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