Claims of abuse at Dunedin special needs school carry weight: Investigator

Sara Cohen School in Dunedin is under investigation over claims its staff abused primary school-aged children.

Sara Cohen School in Dunedin is under investigation over claims its staff abused primary school-aged children.

Claims that staff hit, sat on and force fed children at a special needs school in Dunedin have led to three investigations, two resignations and the suspension of a teacher.

The Ministry of Education appointed a temporary manager to Dunedin's Sara Cohen School in April, who is continuing an inquiry into the allegations after a separate police investigation delayed hers for several months.

No charges were laid from the police's investigation but independent investigator Mike Corkery said there was "some substance" to the allegations made against some staff.

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Eleven sworn affidavits were made by teachers and teacher aides at the school about children being hit, force-fed fruit, and having their wrists bent backward.

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Some non-verbal autistic pupils were put in an unlit seclusion room at Sara Cohen's satellite school for primary schoolers, Concord. That practice is likely to be outlawed by the Ministry of Education.

Speaking in Kaikoura today, Minister for Education Hekia Parata said such behaviour was "totally unacceptable" but that she understood the issues were "not about the school as a whole".

She said she became aware of issues at Sara Cohen early this year.

"We get complaints from schools every day across the country and the ministry is responsible for working out the seriousness of them and this is a serious one, and that's why this level of action's been taken.

"The ministry, following its usual process, put in an independent investigator to establish what the issues were and moved very quickly to put a statutory manager in to deal with the issues. As part of that, an employment process is now underway and I'm confident in the statutory manager that we have there."

The manager, Nicola Hornsey, could not comment on the investigation but said the school was taking all reasonable and practicable steps to ensure students' safety.

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It is understood the school does not use seclusion anymore.

The Ministry of Education released a statement saying allegations made about the treatment of Sara Cohen School students were "very concerning – but they are also subject to dispute".

It has declined to release the investigation undertaken by Corkery, a former Dunedin school principal, claiming he might have to ask more questions of staff and parents if it were made public.

But Corkery disagreed. He said his investigation, in which he interviewed about 15 staff, parents and board members past and present, was comprehensive and he was "quite happy to stand by that".

"There were governance issues that needed to be addressed and I hoped they would be addressed by the limited statutory manager [Hornsey]."

He did not have confidence that would be the case.

A school parent who was among the initial complainants to police said she didn't believe the abuse would stop unless she spoke out.

At first, Sara Cohen School was "the light at the end of the tunnel" for her child, who is autistic.

"Finally [the child] could go to school full-time and we could have a life we never had before," she said.

But after two years there her child told her about being locked in a room, sat on and dragged around by his wrists.

She alleged she complained to Sara Cohen's principal Raewyn Alexander but had her concerns dismissed as exaggeration.

The family eventually withdrew their child from the school as more parents and school staff approached them with similar stories, she said.

"It's shocking, there's very little that's been done ... As we go further down the pathway of the school, investigators and police, people seem to want it behind them."

She felt Sara Cohen was an "end of the line school" for high needs children and more help was needed for underpaid and undertrained specialist school staff.

"It's an accident waiting to happen," she said.

Green Party spokesperson for education Catherine Delahunty said Sara Cohen was "another symptom of a broken system" where staff were not equipped to deal with high needs students and Government did not understand the scale of the problem.

In the case of both Sara Cohen School and Wellington's Miramar Central School, the Ministry of Education knew about alleged abuses months before they were publicised, she said.

"Some of these children are non-verbal, they can't ask for help.

"It's really important that we disinfect this with sunlight, I don't think it's in the interests of children for these things to remain hidden."

Delahunty did not blame teachers under stress for using seclusion rooms but said new strategies were needed as the ministry moves to ban the practice.

Sara Cohen School did not respond to requests for comment.

 - Stuff

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