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An investigation has been launched into ‘organised abuse’ at a special school in London after CCTV was discovered of pupils being physically assaulted and neglected, BBC News has learned.
The videos, found by staff, show pupils being mistreated in padded seclusion rooms between 2014 and 2017.
One parent said he didn’t know the rooms existed until he collected his “distressed” autistic son from one.
The school says it is working with the police and supporting families.
Whitefield School in Walthamstow, north east London, has over 300 pupils aged between three and 19, many of whom have severe or complex needs and are unable to communicate verbally.
BBC News has learned that in May a staff member found a significant number of videos showing children in the school’s seclusion rooms. In some of the footage, pupils are physically assaulted and neglected.
Secure or seclusion rooms are used in schools when it is thought a pupil needs to be isolated from a classroom during the school day.
In July, the school wrote to parents about the discovery of evidence of “alleged child neglect”.
The Metropolitan Police has now reviewed a significant amount of CCTV footage and the local authority has launched an investigation into “organised and complex abuse” at the school, BBC News has learned.
This is defined as “abuse involving one or more abusers and a number of related or non-related abused children”.
In January 2017 the school was rated inadequate after an Ofsted inspection found a small number of pupils had been placed in secure rooms “for repeated and prolonged periods of time”.
The report said that while the school referred to them as “calming rooms” this was “not an accurate description of the three secure, padded and bare spaces that are used”.
All three rooms at Whitefield School were poorly ventilated with doors that could not be opened from the inside, while two had no natural light and children were unable to see outside or hear clearly, according to Ofsted.
“In a significant number of cases, pupils are placed in the rooms more frequently or for longer periods of time, as their behaviour worsens,” the report said. It added there was no evidence parents had been told when their child had been placed in the room.
Following the inspection, the school wrote to parents telling them it was ending use of the rooms. Later that year the school was inspected again and given an outstanding rating.
One parent told the BBC he didn’t know the rooms existed until he was taken to collect his autistic son from one of the them, following problems with his behaviour.
He says his son appeared agitated and his shirt was ripped.
“He was very upset, very distressed”, he added. “I thought it was diabolical.”
The boy’s mother said her son would not have been able to communicate any experiences in the rooms because of the nature of his disability. She says she was frequently called by the school about ways to manage his behaviour but use of the rooms was never mentioned.
“You send your child to school because you expect that they’re going to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.
“I think of a ‘calming room’ as a safe space: beanbags, soft lighting, bubble machines – not padded cells.”
Parents of some pupils at the school who may have spent time in the rooms have been contacted by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, but not been told whether their children have been identified in videos.
BBC News has seen a letter written by the school’s head teacher in May 2017 outlining the steps it was taking to address the Ofsted inspection.
It said it was closing the “calming rooms” but no mention was made of footage documenting their use.
That month a teacher at the school was sacked after a member of the public saw him kick a 17-year-old pupil with autism on a school trip.
A BBC News investigation in 2018 discovered the use of isolation and seclusion rooms varied widely in schools.
It found some children spent consecutive weeks in isolation booths and more than 5,000 children with special educational needs had attended them.
Seclusion rooms are used in many schools across the country to tackle challenging behaviour and disruption.
But government guidance says “a separate room” should only be used when it is in the best interests of the child and other pupils, and locked rooms should only be considered in “exceptional circumstances”.
Rules around use of secure rooms are not strong enough, according to Paul Dix, who has campaigned to ban isolation rooms.
“I don’t think they could be more lax”, he said. “It seems to just rest with the culture and leadership of the individual organisation and nobody really seems too concerned about legislating.
“It’s just ludicrously Victorian to think that putting a child in a locked room is going to do anything but exacerbate the problem.”
In response to the BBC, Whitefield School said it reported the videos to the police and local authority “promptly” after they were discovered and met with parents of those children who may have been affected.
It said the academy trust that runs the school had replaced its head teacher and senior leadership since the footage was found and current practice had recently been reviewed by the local authority.
It declined to say if the CCTV had been disclosed to Ofsted during its inspection.
Ofsted also declined to say if it had observed CCTV cameras during its inspection or asked to review footage.
In a statement it said it had shared some of its inspection evidence with the police at their request and could not comment further.
The London Borough of Waltham Forest says it visited the school after Ofsted’s January 2017 inspection “to ensure the safeguarding concerns raised were acted upon immediately” but only learned pupils had been filmed in the seclusion rooms when the footage was discovered in May 2021.
The Metropolitan Police says it is investigating “several allegations of child cruelty” at the school between 2014 and 2017 but there have been no arrests.
The government says it is aware of the allegations but cannot comment further while a police investigation is under way.
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