Published: 10:00, 26 March 2022
| Updated: 15:22, 28 March 2022
A school has apologised after being found to have breached the human rights of two students after repeatedly strapping them into special chairs to restrict their movements.
Five Acre Wood special school in Maidstone admitted to breaching its own policy and government guidance by using mechanical restraints on the autistic twins.
Kent County Council (KCC), which runs the school, has offered the parents of Samuel and Jacob Montague more than £80,000 in compensation after admitting multiple failings following a legal case.
The twins, who are both severely autistic and non-verbal, started at the school in 2009 aged four, with the intention that they would attend until age 19. They are now both 17.
However, their parents Annie and Mark removed them in 2013 after realising that staff were continually restraining the boys by strapping them into chairs despite numerous objections and protests.
The first public incident took place in 2010, when the boys were wheeled out at a school concert strapped into the 'Hardrock' chairs. The chairs restrain movement through a number of straps that go around legs, arms, and shoulders.
When their horrified parents protested to the school, they were told the use of the mechanical restraint chairs were the only way the boys could participate in such a concert and the incident was a one-off.
Despite this, the couple became concerned that Samuel and Jacob were being routinely restrained while at the school – in June 2011, a clinical psychologist visited and witnessed one of the boys strapped into the Hardrock chairs in the classroom.
The parents protested but the chairs continued to be used. On one occasion the boys’ mother and their carer attended a school sports day where other children were outside and running around. Jacob was strapped into the chair and visibly distressed.
The boys’ autism means they interpret the world through touch and movement, so the use of the chairs completely undermined their human rights, Mr and Mrs Montague said. After they took Samuel and Jacob out of the school, they home-schooled them and the boys have since flourished.
The couple brought a civil case under the Human Rights Act against KCC, saying the restraints had been used unlawfully because the school failed to consider less restrictive options and failed to put in place a plan to reduce the use of restraints.
The school admitted a raft of failings around the use of the chairs and the fact that they failed to even consider less restrictive options, as well as failing to record, report or monitor the use of the chairs.
A KCC spokesman said: "We are deeply sorry for the experiences Samuel and Jacob and their parents suffered during their time at Five Acre Wood School some years ago. It is a matter of sincere regret that this occurred at all.
"Samuel and Jacob attended Five Acre Wood School between September 2009 and October 2013. After reviewing the needs of Samuel and Jacob, the Occupational Therapy service prescribed specialist chairs to them for therapeutic reasons. They also prescribed various safety accessories including lap and shoulder belts and lap trays.
"Between late March 2010 and 6 July 2012 the use of specialist chairs with lap and shoulder belts and/or trays took place intermittently when Samuel and Jacob were at school. On 6 July 2012 the use of these chairs was discussed at a meeting between the parents, the school and social services. At the meeting the parents asked the school to stop using the chairs. The school agreed.
"The chairs were never used for Samuel and Jacob after that date.
“The authority accepts that it owed a duty of care to take reasonable care to keep Samuel and Jacob reasonably safe whilst they were at the school. The use of these specialist chairs should always be agreed by a multi-disciplinary team in consultation with service users, their families and advocates, and recorded within an individual’s care or education plan.
"The Council sincerely apologises for any harm that was caused as a result of these failures"
"Regrettably this did not happen in Samuel and Jacob’s case. This was a breach of the school’s policy and the DfES guidance.
“The council sincerely apologises for any harm, distress and/or pain and suffering that was caused to Samuel and Jacob and to their parents as a result of these failures.
“We will be reinforcing existing guidance on the use of these specialist chairs in all our special schools in the county to ensure that they are being used appropriately to support children and young people to access learning.”
Mr and Mrs Montague are now calling for changes to the law to make it clearer that these restraints should not be used against children like Samuel and Jacob.
Following the settlement, they said: "We are so pleased that Samuel and Jacob’s cases have come to a successful conclusion, and that the local authority has finally admitted that it failed our sons.
"Children with special educational needs should be protected, not strapped into chairs. Mistreatment of children like Samuel and Jacob happens behind closed doors, and it is very difficult for parents to find the evidence to challenge it, or to bring a legal case."
Solicitor Catriona Rubens, who represented the Montague family, said: “Samuel and Jacob were active, sensory seeking children who, because of their autism, interpret the world through movement and touch.
"It is our view that, by strapping them into mechanical restraint chairs at school, the local authority breached their human rights and failed to deliver any therapeutic benefit to the twins.
"We welcome Kent County Council’s sincere apology and recognition that it failed Samuel and Jacob in this case.
"The success of Samuel and Jacob’s case is a testament to the many years their parents spent fighting to get answers from the local authority about the use of restraint against their sons."