Updated 12.15pm with MUT comments

Parents of severely disabled children who attend a state-run secondary education resource centre have spoken out about the lack of trained staff and resources to cater for the specific needs of students at the school.

This comes a year after police started investigating alleged physical abuse by three educators on students who attended the Guardian Angel Secondary Education Resource Centre.

The Disability Commissioner has confirmed a lack of resources and training to handle students with challenging behaviour which is a result of their disability.

Concerned parents said their children had to spend weeks or months out of school either because they were suspended for challenging behaviour, or because they feared for their children’s health and safety if they were sent to the centre.

The Education Ministry has, however, denied that there is a lack of human resources at the centre, including LSEs.

Investigations into abuse

Police confirmed they are investigating allegations of physical abuse by three educators on severely disabled students who attended Guardian Angel, which forms part of the Dun Gorg Preca College that caters for students between 11 and 16.

The alleged abuse, which dates back to early last year, involved spraying the non-verbal students with “a liquid” and hitting one student on the head, according to sources. The educators have been suspended.

The matter was flagged during a parliamentary question by Nationalist MP Justin Schembri. In a reply last October, the education minister said “The necessary investigations are ongoing”.

Asked whether there are any developments three months later, the police said: “investigations and a magisterial inquiry are still ongoing”.

Lack of resources

Commissioner for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rhoda Garland confirmed that the commission received several reports from parents of students at Guardian Angel.

“One of the main issues is that, in the majority of these cases, the children spent their primary school years in places such as Inspire, where their educational entitlement was met through therapeutic sessions. Once they entered Guardian Angel for their secondary school years, these children were not able to cope.”

The commission was involved in discussions with the education authorities and from last week the government has collaborated with Hand in Hand – a company specialising in services for people with developmental disorders – to offer a transitional programme that will run until June, she said.

"The commission recommended to the Education Dept that a therapeutic programme was required for the children at Guardian Angel with challenging behaviour to suit their needs.

"The Education Department did not consult with CRPD with regards to the programme provided and CRPD was only informed after the contract for the programme had been signed."

Garland added that the resource centre had a lack of LSEs and therapeutic professionals to meet the needs of children with challenging behaviour.

According to policy, if a child attending a mainstream school is statemented, the child could get a one-to-one, or a shared LSE according to the student’s needs. However, in resource centres the ratio is three LSEs and a teacher in a class of eight children, which is adequate if there are no students with challenging behaviour.

“Where students with challenging behaviour are included in the class this can result in under-resourced educators who struggle to cope and children with behavioural challenges having unmet needs feeling frustrated,” she said.

She spoke about the need to have more specialised training to educators and extra support from therapeutic professionals in such schools and resource centres to meet the need of these children.

My child has to stay home

Rebecca Bonello explained that her 12-year-old son Matteo – who has Down syndrome, autism and ADHD – last went to school about two weeks ago.

He used to attend the San Miguel Primary Resource Centre where he did well. He then moved to Guardian Angel for his secondary years. During his second scholastic year, he started returning home with injuries that included bite marks and scratches. He also changed from a calm child to a frustrated one, banging and shouting and struggling to sleep.

When he did not attend school, during holidays, he would calm down. The mother, who was in the school council as a parent representative, said the council made recommendations that were not taken on board. The school head later dissolved the council.

One of the issues, Bonello said, is having mixed classrooms with children with diverse disabilities to one another – therefore, placing a strain on the LSEs.

Bonello has taken the matter to the Ombudsman and asked him to look into “potential problems to the school’s management” regarding the safety of children and their mental health caused by a lack of human resources.

Another mother, who has a non-verbal autistic teen, was told to put her child on medication while at Guardian Angel. She complied but her child was suspended due to “challenging behaviour”. The child has been home for over a month.

Caroline Caruana’s son, now 15, is meant to be in his fifth year at Guardian Angel. But this year he has not been able to attend. Apart from being non-verbal autistic he has diabetes and needs to be monitored and given insulin while at school. But this year the school did not allow the LSEs to provide support for his diabetes monitoring throughout the day, as happened in previous years. The mother has to keep him home for his safety.

What will happen next?

Last week, Emma and Julian McEwen spoke about how their 15-year-old son Finn had to change schools three times in four years due to lack of inclusion structures. Finn, who is autistic and non-verbal, started attending Guardian Angel this scholastic where he faced issues. He now started the Hand-in-Hand transition programme which they describe as “excellent”. But questions remain as to what will happen after?

“What is going to happen next year when Finn attends Wardija Resource Centre where the ratio is again eight students in a class to three LSEs. Currently, there isn’t an adolescent programme… the long-term solution is government planning rather than firefighting,” the parents said.

The Autism Parents Association said the hardships that families endure when they have a child on the spectrum are underestimated, especially when coupled with challenging behaviour.

“Over the years, APA has reached out to several ministries for their support to address certain situations, but the fact is, that nowadays everyone is constantly firefighting to address the ever-growing need. So, unless there is a holistic approach and more transparency on the actual numbers of people on the spectrum we will be only skimming the surface.

Every year, the Education Ministry is inundated with new cases and the fact is that there is a constant need of LSEs.

“We passionately believe that if there is more communication and cross communication exposure between the respective ministries, we can prepare ourselves better and address not just the immediate but have a plan for their future as well.”

Ministry reaction

On Saturday, the ministry denied that there was a lack of human resources at the centre, including LSEs.

In a statement, it said the school also has an Inclusion Department head employed on a full-time basis to help educators which a programme was tailored for every student.

The National Strategy for Education, which is in its final consultation phase, will “transform” the sector and will cover all its needs.

A study at the Guardian Angel school in December 2022 had recommended a series of measures to improve the situation.

The ministry last month also nominated a fact-finding board to evaluate the actual situation inside the school and provide recommendations by the end of this month.

'Concerted attack on school, educators'

On Tuesday the Malta Union of Teachers expressed support with educators and the school community of Guardian Angel.

“The union is highly concerned about the concerted attack on the school and its educators.

"Requesting improvement to a service is one thing, but trying to dismantle an entire school is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that individuals, who have no idea what it takes to run an educational institution, seek all possible ways to bring the school to its knees, at the detriment of educators and students,” the union said in a statement.

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