Teaching staff — teachers and educational aides — of autistic students in Barrie in southern Ontario have been employing blocker shields that are used in martial arts training for “safety and support” in school classrooms. According to the Toronto Star, the shields have been used in Barrie public schools since fall of 2010, but parents said they had only learned of what some have termed “riot gear” after an anonymous individual sent a photo of autistic students with aides carrying the shields.
A Disturbing Lack of Communication From the School to Parents
Not only is it outright disturbing to hear about the school district using such blocker shields. But parents had not, says the Toronto Star, been informed about the shields.
In the US, not informing parents about the use of such equipment to “manage” the students’ challenging behaviors is a potential violation of students’ rights under the Individuals with Education Disabilities Act (IDEA). My own teenage autistic son Charlie has had a number of “challenging behaviors” throughout his life that have, at times, included throwing, grabbing, biting and head-banging. He has always had a Behavior Intervention Plan that specifically describes what to do when there is a “crisis” situation — when he gets extremely upset, often from anxiety, stomach discomfort or other feelings that he doesn’t have the language to express. Before teachers and aides can implement the plan, my husband and I have to discuss the plan and sign off on it. When there is a crisis situation, my son’s school sends home a written report the day of the incident; his teacher also often calls me.
Would the Barrie parents have agreed to the use of blocker shields had the school district discussed these in advance?
Details About the Use of Blocker Shields in Barrie Schools
Kathi Wallace, director of the Simcoe County District School Board, said that what she termed “foam pads” are used in a class of autistic students at Barrie North Collegiate and also for students with “high needs” in other district high schools. The union representing aids working with students with disabilities also defended the use of the shields. I quote the specific arguments of these parties as the use of such equipment for “safety and support” is a legal issue:
“They [the shields] were put in place based on needs that were identified in certain classrooms,” said [school board director] Wallace.
“If you had a young person, let’s say, whose behaviour was such that even prior to a helmet going on their head . . . they’re hitting their head against the wall, then this foam pad would give protection.”
The union representing educational assistants working with special needs students in Simcoe County said workers often suffer concussions, bites, punches and slaps, and the shields help prevent such injuries.
“They’ll use them as a blocker to just block the aggressor. It is just to protect themselves for the moment until they defuse the situation,” said Silvanna Petersen, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 330.
The Toronto District School Board supplies jackets with extra padding and shin guards in some classes with autistic or developmentally delayed students but the board has not approved blocker shields, said Bonnie Dineen, educational assistant at Oakwood Collegiate Institute.
She said for the most part educators require protection. “We absolutely are assaulted regularly in the classroom.”
Educators may feel that they are being “assaulted” but this choice of wording is troubling when used in regard to students with disabilities. While I can say from our own experiences that helping Charlie when he is in crisis is very physically demanding, we know that he is not trying to “aggress” or hurt anyone. His neurological system is out of control at these times; his anxiety level is way, way up; he often seems to be in a state of “fight or flight.”
One parent in Barrie, Susan Clough, is arguing to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that the use of the shields is “proof of ongoing systemic discrimination against her autistic son.” Another parent, Anita Walsh, whose son is 15 years old and non-verbal, points out that there are two aides per student and has demanded to “know who approved them [the shields] and how the educators are trained.”
Angie Bridekirk, the chair of the school district’s special education advisory committee, notes that the shields implicitly communicate the message that “special needs students are inherently violent, and further isolates them from their peers.” In addition, relying on such equipment does not address why a student might be having certain kinds of behaviors and could prevent staff from using techniques that don’t involve such equipment.
Teachers and School Staff Need Adequate Training and Support, Not Blocker Shields
The use of blocker shields in classrooms with autistic students and students with disabilities cannot in any way be condoned. Teachers and aides do need, at the very least, sufficient resources so they can carry out their work in an environment conducive to learning and where they feel comfortable. The report about the blocker shields raises serious questions about how adequately supported and trained teaching staff in the Barrie schools are and, too, whether the administration is providing staff with the necessary supports.
When my son was in a public middle school in central New Jersey — in a well-regarded school district for autistic students — the administration and behaviorist insisted that he wear a helmet, due to his self-injurious and other behaviors. At first, we still wanted Charlie to remain in his classroom in a public middle school. The helmet must only be temporary, we insisted; we requested that we all had to work on teaching Charlie other ways to communicate and deal with sensory overload and whatever was causing the behaviors.
Unfortunately, things went from tense and bad to really worse. We decided to take Charlie out of the public school and place him in a separate county autism center. The center’s staff started working on removing the helmet in a gradual process.
This school has proved the right placement for Charlie. As the whole school is dedicated to autistic children aged 3 – 21, there are lots of teachers, therapists, aids and behaviorists available at all times. The school is located in its own quite large building and there is space for a child who is upset to (as Charlie likes to) walk and even run (on an indoor track). Occupational therapy equipment — often key to helping a student in crisis calm down — is readily accessible; in the public school, Charlie had sometimes received OT in makeshift locations, including (in another school district) the back of the auditorium stage. His school is a pleasant, cheery place that Charlie has come to love (indeed, he is on spring break this week and missing school and his teachers and the students).
Creating such a school does require lots of resources and funding. Educating a student in such an out-of-district placement may well cost more (also because of the cost of transportation) than placing students in classrooms that are located in public schools. I’ve known of more than a few cases in which school districts argued that their in-district program was equivalent to one in a private school, without pointing out that the in-district program was more cost-effective (i.e., cheaper). Students in an in-district program do have the benefit of being among their peers and other opportunities for inclusion though some students’ behavior issues may make such unlikely. If Barrie school staff are using blocker shields with autistic students, it is doubtful that students are given many opportunities for interaction with their same-aged peers.
The long and short of it is: Educational staff using blocking shields or such equipment is a sign that the programs and/or staff training and support are inappropriate and require thorough scrutiny and revision. The school district needs to reevaluate teaching methods and, indeed, its whole program for students with disabilities. What kind of “teaching” is it to block students with shields?
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Photo by Simon Blackley