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When a child with special needs is attacked at school, whom do we blame?

It’s time to start valuing special education as a critical component in the development of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who have much to contribute to Israeli society.

Petach Tikva resident Ginat Greenwald pointing to injuries that her nine-year-old special-needs daughter, Lihi, sustained in school in Sept. 2020. Source: Facebook.
Petach Tikva resident Ginat Greenwald pointing to injuries that her nine-year-old special-needs daughter, Lihi, sustained in school in Sept. 2020. Source: Facebook.
Chaim Perkal
Chaim Perkal

It’s a story straight out of every parent’s worst nightmare.

You get a call from your child’s school, informing you that your kid got into a spat with another child and was “lightly hit.”

You don’t think much of it, chalking it up to an unpleasant but harmless incident between classmates.

Then, a second call, this time telling you that your child has been seriously hurt. With your heart pounding, you race to the school and find your child bruised and bleeding.

It’s clear from your kid’s condition that some time passed between your child’s injury and when the school told you about the attack. Administrators don’t have any answers.

This is what happened to Ginat Greenwald of Petach Tikva on Tuesday. Greenwald, the mother of Lihi, a nine-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, detailed the incident in a Facebook post.

Just before the end of the school day, a teacher called Greenwald and said that Lihi was “lightly hit” by another girl during an argument, without elaborating further.

“As the mother of a special-needs child, I said, ‘these things happen’ and it was fine,” wrote Greenwald. The caller quickly hung up.

A few minutes later, another school employee called her with a different version of events, saying Lihi was “not in good shape” and that she was “bruised and bleeding.”

She rushed to the school and found her daughter with serious swelling and bruising to her face, along with dried blood—suggesting that a significant amount of time had passed since the attack. She immediately took her daughter to the emergency room.

“This is a helpless girl with Down’s Syndrome who was bleeding from her head and her eye, with blood all over her face,” she wrote. “This isn’t a ‘little hit.’ ”

Greenwald said the school did not follow up with her to check on her daughter’s condition. Lihi is minimally verbal and could not explain what happened, so Greenwald contacted her teacher about the incident.

“When I reached out to the teacher, she had no idea what I was talking about,” wrote Greenwald. “The principal clarified that [at the time of the attack] the teacher had been locked out of the classroom and there’s no way to know what happened.”

As the father of two children with special needs, I understand how disturbing this event is for Greenwald. Parents of special needs kids fear situations in which their vulnerable child is left unprotected.

And all parents, whether or not their children have special needs, are unsettled by stories like this one. When we send our children off to school, we expect their educational institutions to keep them safe. An incident like this one shakes the foundation of trust between parents and the school system.

There’s no doubt that the school failed Lihi. But while it’s tempting to condemn this individual school, we must understand that this incident is indicative of a wider problem. Israel’s special-education system has been under enormous strain for years. Schools are often understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded.

The very same day that Greenwald’s daughter was attacked, teachers at 19 special education schools across Israel were on strike. The reason? A 13 percent surprise pay cut to their salaries. While the one-day strike was enough to stop the pay cut, we should understand that a system that doesn’t value its teachers will not produce an ideal environment for special-education students.

We should withhold judgment until the school comes forth with its version of events, but one thing is clear: In a school with limited staff and resources, incidents like this one are much more likely to happen.

Perhaps Lihi’s teacher had no support available, no aide or substitute teacher to call who could supervise the classroom for a few minutes while she stepped out. These types of events do not happen in a vacuum.

It’s time to start valuing special education as a critical component in the development of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These children have much to contribute to Israeli society.

But in order to help them reach their potential, we must invest in our schools and teachers, creating an environment that encourages staff retention and a manageable student to teacher ratio.

Greenwald posted on Facebook that Lihi is recovering and feeling much better. But the trauma of this incident will undoubtedly remain with her and her family for many years.

While it’s impossible to guarantee that nothing like this will ever happen again, we must look critically at the causes of this incident—likely, understaffing in special-education schools—and commit to improvement.

We urgently need teacher recruiting and training programs to get more educators in special-education schools. We need to create an environment that will attract highly-motivated, enthusiastic educators. Most importantly of all, we must hold the Education Ministry and school administrators accountable when conditions in schools are not safe.

We must learn from this horrifying incident. In this case, prevention is the best cure. Our children’s safety is paramount.

Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the director and founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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