Learning Disability Today
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“Horrifying” abuse uncovered at special school in Walthamstow

Staff caught on CCTV abusing children at a special school in Walthamstow have not been sacked, according to an investigation by BBC File on 4.

Thirty-nine pupils were abused in so called ‘calming rooms’ by staff at one of the largest special schools in the UK between 2014 and 2017. Memory sticks storing the CCTV footage were discovered by new leadership at Whitefield school in 2021, prompting a police investigation.

Following the investigation, the ‘calming rooms’ were closed, but the BBC has discovered that the six staff proven to have abused the children on the balance of probabilities were not sacked, and at least one referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) was recommended but not made.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza says File on 4’s findings are “horrifying” and is calling for rules on seclusion to be tightened.

“There is no place for any of that behaviour and it needs to stop,” she said.

CCTV footage shows children at Walthamstow special school being slammed, kicked and hit with force

From leaked school and council reports, information requests, and interviews with current and former employees, BBC File on 4 discovered:

  • Evidence that pupils were left alone in the rooms for up to four hours, with some children “slammed”, kicked and hit with force, while rhino pads were deployed to push pupils inside
  • More than 20 CCTV clips showing excessive force, with footage showing children naked, sitting in urine and eating crumbs off the floor
  • Records of police notes describing possible assaults, yet the Crown Prosecution Service did not recommend prosecutions.

A whistleblower who worked at the school describes what they saw on CCTV as “torture”. She told the programme that the rooms were worse than cells, and the school’s investigation had amounted to a “whitewash”.

“You’ve ended up with staff with no sanctions against them, no learning or awareness, no serious case review to look at what went wrong,” she told the programme.

Pupil prevented from leaving seclusion room despite him crying, self-harming and urinating

The BBC also spoken to nine of the 39 affected families about the abuse. David Gloria, now 20, who used to attend the special school in Walthamstow was held in the seclusion room on multiple occasions.

One observation report, seen by File on 4, records David being held for three hours. The report says he cried on 38 separate occasions and he is recorded injuring himself by slapping and punching his head and stomach, throwing himself into the wall and urinating twice, yet he was not allowed to leave.

David’s father, Ricardo (a police officer), demanded to visit the room and said it was worse than a prison cell. He noticed a CCTV camera and asked to see the footage. David is shown being “assaulted” by staff and forced into the room, although this is note recorded in the report.

Ricardo said: “My son was in a panicked state and crying and self-harming, begging them for water and food and they just ignored him – it’s torture.”

None of this footage was featured in the 500 hours of footage handed to the police. But one boy, Ashley, who was 12 at the time, features in over 55 hours of the video recordings.

Leaked documents describe a staff member pinning him up against the wall or a room and hitting him with such force his body is recorded as “jolting” before becoming unsteady on his feet. The BBC says they have also learned of another occasion when Ashley was repeatedly pushed, then left alone, walking on his knees and crying.

Ashely, now 22, now has such intense anxiety that he rubs his head on the floor, giving himself carpet burns. He was sectioned in 2020 and has recently tried to jump out of a moving car, which his family attribute to his abuse at school.

The external consultant said the teacher showed no remorse or concern for Ashley’s welfare when interviewed, suggesting a “potential absence of learning”. While she concluded the teacher should be referred to the DBS, the BBC says this referral was never made and they continue to teach at the school.

Trust says it is not legally required to make DBS referrals

Flourish Learning Trust, which runs the school, told the BBC that a new leadership team had taken over after the calming rooms had been shut, shared the footage with the police and learned from the failings.

It said some staff had resigned since its investigations were completed, but three who returned have received extensive training. It said it complied with employment law and the local authority, Waltham Forest, was content with its conduct.

The Trust says that one staff member was sacked, but it is not legally obligated to make DBS referrals for the six staff members who were not sacked despite its investigation findings proving they abused pupils. The school says this is because they were not removed from their roles – but had rather been suspended. Government guidance says suspension qualifies as removing a staff member from a role.

The force says it is unable to comment while enquiries continue into non-Whitefield staff, understood to relate to other professionals who may have had knowledge of concerns.

Caught on Camera: The special school staff who abused kids and kept their jobs will air tonight (Tuesday 30th April) at 8pm on BBC Radio 4.

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