Aversive Practices are Abuse

We work to provide hope and encouraging information across all of our media, events, and articles. Occasionally, though, we become aware of negative news that compels us to respond. The recent case of educators abusing three young students with disabilities is some of that bad news. Over the past several decades of our work, we have been consulted on or informed about aversive practices in classrooms all around the state of Pennsylvania. Based on that experience, we are sharing some key points with you.

All families grappling with disability issues in school must rely on the people who call themselves professionals for guidance, and often trust that those in charge have ethics, high standards, and the knowledge needed to guide and educate students in their care. Unfortunately, as in any profession, there are people out there being paid to do their jobs who behave in unethical and sometimes criminal ways.

But how does anyone know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what to do if they get a bad feeling about a person, classroom, or school, especially when dealing with students who have communication difficulties? Here are some tips you could use in decision making about these situations.

Tips for Decision Making

1.) Trust your gut – often said in terms of protecting ourselves from victimization in things like street crime, this also applies to protecting children or adults with disabilities.  It’s easier said than done, though.  If you get a bad gut feeling, you could request classroom observation for starters to see how your child interacts with or responds to the adults in the room.

2.) Behavior is communication, so watch for school avoidance behaviors (stonewalling on the tasks needed to get out the door, bus refusal, not getting out of the car at drop off time, bed wetting, afterschool distress).  Some of these things may be normal separation anxiety, but a pattern or intense behaviors may signal a scary school situation the person does not want to experience. People with regular transition issues who exhibit avoidance in going anywhere is one thing, but if these happen mainly or only regarding school, that is something to pay attention to.

3.) Listen and share with others – talk with parents, teachers, random school observers, and see if you get any inklings on classroom problems. Pay attention to anyone who comes to you asking for help from inside a school – sometimes politics get in the way, and you may be surprised to find adults who cannot or will not do the right thing in the face of obvious abuse, in order to protect their own self-interest and job.  

4.) Insist on mandated reporter training on a regular basis in your school. You can do this via parent teacher organizations, via your own Individual Education Program (IEP) process, or sometimes by just requesting it from the district office or building principal. If this is done routinely already, ask to sit in and invite other parents and guardians to participate as well. Keeping this on everyone’s radar is the safest and healthiest thing for a school climate.

5.) Beware the “local autism expert” teacher who may have misled their colleagues about best practices. We have seen or heard of some appalling ones such as: 

  • Overcorrection of a kindergarten student who wet their pants and was made to take them on and off repeatedly dozens of times in response on many occasions
  • Aversive tastes forced into someone’s mouth
  • Repeated “nagging,” taught as a technique, which was actually bullying students by loud and forceful repeated commands they could not process auditorily until they tried to leave, resulting in hands on restraints which escalated to panic fight or flight response 
  • Forcing students with sensory issues hands into aversive textures that made them gag (handling goo is not an academic goal nor a skill needed in adulthood) 
  • Public shaming in front of students and adults
  • Multiple staff repeatedly dragging a high school student by the arms to the bus in September after the student had been in a bus accident the previous June

Sadly, the list goes on. 

When things are disrespectful, punitive, fly in the face of disability needs, and are something you would not tolerate as an adult, they are likely not educational and may be abusive.

Safe Educational Environments are Crucial

As advocates, we recognize the vital role that education plays in shaping lives. The recent distressing incidents of educators mistreating students with disabilities underscore the urgent need for vigilance and action. Our decades of experience have shown us that, despite the majority of dedicated professionals in the field, there are instances where some lack the ethics and standards necessary for this responsibility.

In navigating the complex world of education, especially for those with communication difficulties, it becomes imperative to trust your instincts, observe behaviors, and foster open communication with other stakeholders. The provided tips for decision-making serve as a guide for parents, guardians, and concerned individuals to actively engage in ensuring the well-being of students.

It is crucial to remain vigilant against practices that are disrespectful, punitive, and go against the fundamental needs of people with disabilities. By staying informed, advocating for mandated reporter training, and fostering a culture of transparency, we can collectively contribute to creating safer and more supportive learning environments for all.

What to Do if You Suspect Abuse

Contact the school’s administration about your concerns and request unannounced visits to the classroom.

Include mandatory training for reporting suspected abuse, and training for positive behavior supports in the Special Education Services section of your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP). Visit PaTTAN’s website for Customized Professional Development and Technical Assistance.

Email [email protected] to alert the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) about suspected abuse.

Students who are concerned about abuse in school can visit Safe2Say Something for information about making an anonymous report.

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