A 5-year-old special-needs student was manhandled while attending class at the Morrow Elementary school in North Lauderdale by a teacher’s assistant. The child, who is nonverbal, was unable to articulate what happened to him to his parents, but a video sent by an eye-witness captured the abuse.
Parents John Fishley and Finola Long are outraged after seeing footage of their son Amani, who has autism, yanked around by the pre-kindergarten aide on Tuesday, May 10. The husband and wife said they were told almost two weeks after it happened.
After being alerted, they not only reported the incident, along with the video, to the school but made a child abuse complaint to the Broward Sheriff’s Office — making law enforcement their first stop before contacting the Morrow Elementary principal.
The footage shows the adult grabbing the child and trying to push him down into a chair. The assistant seems to be uninterrupted by other adults in the classroom, as she violently struggles to get the child to comply with her desires.
Amani, who has a twin brother who shares similar developmental challenges, needs special attention and is prone to commit acts of self-harm in times of frustration.
His dad describes some of his outbursts, saying to CBS Miami 4, “He has tantrums, he self-harms and throws himself on the ground.”
According to the Autism Research Institute, self-harm or self-injury “serves as a means of communication. Often a child is trying to convey a feeling or idea they may not be able to express in words.
Biting, headbanging, or other self-injurious behaviors are a means of getting their needs met and may be their urgent need to express pain, fear, displeasure, or anxiety.”
Experts suggest children are trying to communicate messages like “I’m scared, I want to get out of here,” “this is too hard, I don’t want to do this,” “Play with me!” or “Look at me!” or “My head hurts, it feels better when I bang it,” etc.
Fishley and Long placed both of their sons, who have IEPs stating their different learning abilities, in the class, which was said to be designed to the special needs of their children. But they are now concerned that even in the safe space they should be concerned. The father stated, “If you are not there, they are open to abuse because they can’t speak for themselves.”
After seeing the footage, the mother said she broke down, saying, “I started crying maybe a couple of minutes after. It was horrible.”
The video was filmed on someone’s cellphone camera. Leslie Phillips from the National Autism Association believes surveillance cameras should have already been in the classrooms.
She argued in her research, “Behind Closed Doors: What’s Happening to Students with Autism in America’s Public Schools” that with the recent spike in autism diagnoses over the past 20 years(1 out of 44 children born are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to 2018 data), cameras should be in classes to monitor teachers and aides are often ill-equipped to navigate the complicated needs of their students.
Phillips asserts, “Tragically, this recipe of inadequate screening of prospective teachers and aides, poor training, students who sometimes have very challenging behaviors, and lack of oversight has resulted in an alarming increase in reported incidents of student abuse.”
Sometimes the teachers have personal reasons, aside from training that cause them to abuse special needs children.
In January of 2022, a 7-year-old Miami-Dade County girl, with special needs, was reportedly bullied at school, by her teacher. Witnesses saw the educator grab the small child’s hands and wrists, leaving a red mark. The girl’s mother filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming the child’s 14th Amendment due process and equal protection claims have been violated.
The teacher’s actions were also a “violation of the American with Disabilities Act, assault & battery, false imprisonment, displayed negligence, and infliction of emotional and physical distress on the child.”
Amani’s parents found out about the assault on a Wednesday and the principal told them she would start an investigation on the Friday of their conversation.
However, the family believes the school official knew about it before they notified her. Fishley says, “We know she was already informed about it sometime after the incident.”
Broward School District spokesman John Sullivan responded in a statement, saying, “Priority is to provide a safe learning environment for all students. The district will immediately look into the video and take any necessary actions.”
The parents are calling for at the very least, the teaching assistant to be removed from the class.
Fishley says, “It was quite horrible to see him being treated worse than an animal.”