American socialite Paris Hilton has made an appeal for the Northern Irish Assembly to introduce tougher laws on when young children can be physically restrained at school. This has been a long-winded and often ignored issue in Northern Ireland that originated from a campaign lead in Country Tyrone. Upon realising the severity of how her son was being restrained in his special needs school, mother Deirdre Shakespeare launched a campaign known as ‘Harry’s Law.’
This mother’s shock was amplified after seeing a photo diary of Harry’s first year of school. Although the school were granted permission from his parents to put him in a chair during mealtimes, this campaign was launched due to the extreme amount of times the use of restraints has been enforced, thus making it a topic of legal dispute in Northern Ireland.
If Harry’s Law was to come into effect in schools, it would make it compulsory for all schools to report to both parents and the Education Authority if there is an instance where a pupil has been isolated or restrained. As well as this, it would look at the behaviour of staff members in these schools, hoping to change it for the better. In order for effective growth and for the child’s overall well-being in school, staff members must exert different and more positive ways of addressing children’s behaviour.
Hilton’s involvement in this campaign has left many surprised, not realising the attention that could be raised from a small part of the world to all the way across the pond. Hilton issued a message over Twitter, bringing awareness to her 17 million followers as she appealed to the committee and its chairman, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, urging them that more ‘meaningful protection’ needs to be enforced in schools for children today. This is an issue that is close to Hilton’s heart, as in early February she brought a case to the Utah state senate about previous abuse she had suffered whilst attending boarding school as a teenager. Some of this abuse included being forced into solitary confinement naked and being later beaten.
Harry’s parents are extremely happy that this case is receiving wider attention, but still think that more children are continuing to suffer at the hands of time-wasting from Stormont. “What this has showed [shown] me,” says Deirdre Shakespeare, “is that this department has failed children for far too long. Parents feel unable to speak out. It has been very difficult at times for me, but if I stay silent – nothing will ever change. It is for this reason that I keep going. The education committee now sees the urgent need for a change in legislation. But what’s more important now is that the department acts on the urgency being shown. There is now recognition that this is happening in schools.”
Unbeknownst to many, the Department of Education’s guidance handbook on this issue has not been updated since 1999. In this guidance, it states that all incidents which involve the use of reasonable force need to be recorded by the school, and must only occur in ‘rare’ instances. However, the recording of these incidents isn’t a legal obligation, which is why cases like Harry’s have been allowed to fester.
The British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland has spoken out against this issue, citing that this kind of practise will have damaging effects on young children. MLAs of Stormont have heard from representatives of the International Coalition against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS) which was referenced in Hilton’s tweet, as well as Parent Action NI. Orla Watt from Parent Action NI argues for “the appointment of a parent-carer champion,” something which is similar to that of a mental health champion. Watt also called for more training in schools, citing the suffering that children with special needs go through at school.
With still a lot of work left to be done, the campaigners in Northern Ireland have hope thanks to the involvement of high-profile celebrities like Paris Hilton that can help spread their message. Pat Sheehan from Sinn Fein commented that: “We are no longer in the dark ages. We have a responsibility to future generations to try and ensure whatever has happened to your children doesn’t happen again.”