Shocking investigation reveals London special school pupils tortured in so-called calming rooms

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Updated May 1, 2024 at 12:52 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

A recent investigation conducted by the BBC has uncovered deeply disturbing instances of mistreatment and abuse inflicted upon special school pupils at Whitefield School in London. So far it’s been revealed that 39 vulnerable children, who require additional support and care, were subjected to horrific conditions in so-called “calming rooms,” leaving parents horrified and demanding urgent action to address these horrific violations.

Reports reveal that the very spaces designed to provide comfort and support to these children became chambers of torment and anguish. Instead of offering a safe haven, these calming rooms became sites of psychological and physical abuse, leaving a lasting impact on the young minds and bodies of those entrusted to their care.

Parents, already grappling with the challenges of caring for children with special needs, were left stunned upon learning the extent of the mistreatment their children endured.

The harrowing testimonies shared by affected families paint a grim picture of the horrors witnessed within these institutions. Children, unable to articulate their experiences, suffered in silence as they were subjected to confinement, restraint, and neglect. The psychological trauma inflicted upon these vulnerable individuals was immeasurable, with many experiencing lasting emotional scars as a result of their ordeal.

However, even though evidence of abuse within the “calming rooms” has been substantiated by the school, certain staff members implicated in the mistreatment continue to be employed and have not faced restrictions from working with children.

Parents expressed frustration, stating that they had been denied access to the footage and were misled regarding the practice of isolation.

Whitefield School, in North-East London, maintains that its actions were in the best interests of the pupils and asserts that it is not obligated to make referrals for barring individuals from working with children.

However, Ricardo, father of one of the victims, recounted the heart-wrenching experience of discovering his child, David, confined in a dark and barren room, devoid of any semblance of comfort or safety.

David’s distress is evident, with recordings capturing him crying on 38 different occasions during the period, repeatedly expressing a desire to leave. He is heard expressing confusion and stating that he does not understand why he is confined to the room.

The recordings also document instances of significant self-injury, including David slapping and punching his head, hitting his stomach, and throwing himself into the wall. Despite urinating twice within two hours, the student was not permitted to exit the room.

When Ricardo decided to finally visit the room where his son used to be held, he described it as worse than a prison cell. Upon noticing a CCTV camera inside, he insisted that staff show him one of the videos.

Ricardo, a police officer, recalls being shocked by the footage, which depicted David being “assaulted” by staff who forcefully pushed him into the room. “My son was panicked and crying and self-harming, begging them for water and food, and they just ignored him—it’s torture,” he told the BBC.

Unfortunately, this was not the only case. Another harrowing instance involves a boy named Ashley, who endured over 55 hours of abuse by various staff members from the school.

Ashley, who appears in more of the original CCTV footage than any other individual, was 12 at the time of the incidents. His family reports that his time in the calming rooms led to his sectioning in 2020, as his behaviour escalated, including an incident where he jumped out of a moving car.

Now 22, Ashley’s mother describes how his anxiety has escalated to the point where he aggressively rubs his head on the floor, resulting in significant carpet burns.

“It’s so unbelievable that you could keep a human being in a room the size of a cupboard and expect them to be OK,” Ashley’s mother told the publication. She had initially believed Ashley would be placed in a sensory room with beanbags and colourful lights.

Leaked documents describe a staff member pinning Ashley up against the wall of a room and hitting him with such force that his body “jolted” before he became unsteady on his feet.

An external consultant concluded that this incident constituted proven physical abuse and noted the absence of remorse or concern for the boy’s welfare from the teacher involved. The consultant recommended disciplinary action and a referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

However, the BBC has learned that no such action was taken and that the teacher continues to teach at the school. Education consultant Elizabeth Swan described this decision as “unfathomable.”

The abuse inflicted upon these children highlights a systemic failure to safeguard the rights and well-being of individuals with special needs.

As investigations into these shocking revelations continue, swift and decisive action must be taken to hold those responsible to account and implement robust safeguards to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future.

International research indicates that approximately one-third of children and adolescents with disabilities encounter emotional and physical abuse, with 20 per cent enduring neglect, and one in ten experiencing sexual violence.

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