Fury over 'right' to kick deaf children

19th January 2001 at 00:00
The deaf community and children's organisations have launched a stinging attack on the implications of a sheriff's judgment that allowed David Scott, former principal of Donaldson's College for the Deaf, and a former instructor to walk free from court last November.

Both were cleared of assault charges against pupils, although Mr Scott was found guilty on another charge. Sheriff Mhairi Stephen absolved him. But 10 weeks after the trial key representatives of the deaf community are stepping up a campaign to highlight their view that the sheriff's summation gave a false account of how deaf children should be treated.

They say the sheriff implied that it was normal practice to touch deaf pupils because of their difficulties. But widely accepted guidelines emphasise deaf children should be treated no differently. Local authorities share the concerns.

Following the trial, Janet Allan, the new principal of the independent Edinburgh specialist school, in a letter to parents that has now been made public, comments: "Of course, deaf people may have to be attracted by tapping them but convention within both the deaf and hearing worlds requires that the minimum appropriate physical contact be made. That means tapping the deaf person gently on the shoulder or arm with your hand. Under no circumstances does it involve using your feet."

Mr Scott, among other charges, was alleged to have kicked pupils to bring them into line.

Mrs Allan states: "The fact that a pupil caused a lot of difficulties is, in my belief, undoubtedly a cause of frustration in staff and perhaps one of the reasons why a child is educated in special education. It can never, however, justify the use of force by a teacher."

She adds: "I was deeply troubled at the comments passed by the sheriff but did not wish to make any comment without serious reflection. As the days have passed, however, my feelings that silence meant collusion or agreement have grown. In the courtroom I was bitterly disappointed at what I heardand can only begin to imagine what isolation and fear could have been experienced by a deaf person or the parent of a deaf child."

Margaret McKay, chief executive of Children 1st, said: "It is quite unacceptable to lift one's feet, whether gently or not. Children with disabilities are first and foremost children and deserve to be treated with the same care and respect as any other child."

Many children tested their parents and teachers but people with a responsibility for special educational needs should have the training and expertise to handle these situations.

Lilian Lawson, director of the Scottish Council on Deafness, who is herself deaf, said she was dismayed that expert witnesses from professional deaf organisations and other schools were not called to advise on current practice. "The sheriff did not appear to refer to the policies which prevail regarding the sensitive management of pupils with sensory impairment."

Veronica Rattray, of the National Deaf Children's Society, said: "The message the court case has given is likely to confuse the staff working in these situations because it conflicts with the guidelines."

The society believes that the sheriff's interpretation will make it more difficult for deaf children, either in special schools or units or mainstream schools, to report possible abuse or bullying. They might fear nothing will happen.

The deaf lobby also argues that there are implications for deaf and hearing impaired pupils who are educated in mainstream primaries and secondaries. Of 2,250 deaf children in Scotland only around 150 are educated in special schools.

A national shortage of qualified teachers for the deaf is contributing to the difficulties some classroom teachers have in understanding the needs of deaf children in the mainstream, the lobby points out.

Statistics show there are currently around 187 specialist teachers and 20 in training. There is a need for many more to provide an adequate service, the lobby insists.

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