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Paris Hilton joins calls for tougher law on restraint in Northern Ireland schools

US socialite backs Tyrone woman's bid to have Stormont bring in legislation on physical restraint of youngsters


Paris Hilton (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Paris Hilton (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Paris Hilton (Rick Bowmer/AP)

It's perhaps the most unlikely intervention Stormont has ever witnessed.

American media pesonality and socialite Paris Hilton has made an appeal for the Assembly to introduce tougher laws on when youngsters can be physically restrained at school.

She spoke out in support of Harry's Law, a campaign led by Co Tyrone mother Deirdre Shakespeare after she realised how much her son was being restrained at his special school upon seeing a photo diary of his first year.

While permission was granted by Harry's parents to be put in a chair at mealtimes, the extent of the use of restraints is now the subject of a legal dispute.

The campaign for Harry's Law would make it compulsory for schools to report to parents and the Education Authority when they had restrained or isolated a pupil.

It would also mean that more school staff were trained in other, positive ways to address a child's behaviour.

The issue was discussed at a meeting of Stormont's education committee yesterday, which heard about restrictive practice, seclusion and restraint in schools.

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Afterwards the well-known celebrity issued a message to her 17 million Twitter followers appealing to the committee and its chairman, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, to provide "meaningful protections" for children.

Earlier this month Ms Hilton testified to the Utah state senate about abuse she said she suffered as a teenager at a boarding school, including being forced into solitary confinement naked and being beaten.

Mrs Shakespeare is pleased the issue is receiving so much attention.

She said the chance to address MLAs yesterday had been "very powerful", but said so many more children will have suffered harm as so much time had been wasted in updating laws.

"What this showed me was that the department has failed children for far too long," she said.

"Many parents have felt unable to speak out.

"It has been very difficult at times for me, but if I stay silent nothing will ever change. That's why I've kept 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, at least, a recognition now that this is actually happening in schools."

The Department of Education's guidance on the issue, which hasn't been updated since 1999, states all incidents involving the use of reasonable force should be "rare" and recorded by schools, but the recording of such incidents is not a legal obligation.

The British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland has also said the practices could have damaging effects.

MLAs heard from representatives of the International Coalition against Restraint and Seclusio (ICARS), which was named in Ms Hilton's tweet, and Parent Action NI.

Orla Watt from Parent Action NI said children with special educational needs had "suffered" restraint and seclusion in special and mainstream schools in recent years and said there was a need for more training.

"We'd also like to request the appointment of a parent-carer champion similar to a mental health champion," she added.

The suggestion was supported by the UUP's Robbie Butler and the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, who said there was a "desperate need for a voice, someone central" to advocate for families.

ICARS said that stricter protocols on restraint and seclusion were needed so that the Assembly could fulfil obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Mrs Shakespeare and Beth Morrsion, who founded ICARS with Zoe Read, also gave evidence to the committee.

"The first step is ensuring mandatory recording and documenting of any incidents of physical or mechanical restraint or the use of seclusion on a child," Mrs Shakespeare said.

Campaigners hope the high-profile Ms Hilton's intervention will draw attention to the issue.

It is not the first time a famous face has intervened in local affairs.

Actor Liam Neeson has previously called for the Executive to provide a "lifeline" to the arts sector here, and has been a passionate supporter of integrated education.

And in 2015 Queen guitarist Brian May, an activist against animal cruelty, criticised proposals for a pig farm in Co Antrim.

Belfast Telegraph

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