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Rights + Justice

Paige's Story: Who Checks In When Students Check Out?

Children's watchdog finds BC school attendance policies lack teeth.

Katie Hyslop 30 May

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

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Paige, a young indigenous woman who died at 19, was failed by BC's education system, says the children's watchdog.

It's the law of the land in British Columbia that kids ages six to 16 must go to school. Public, private, home-schooled -- it doesn't matter, but an education is non-negotiable. So what happens when parents or kids won't -- or can't -- comply?

That's what B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond wants to know after reporting on the death of a young indigenous woman she said was failed by the education system.

Earlier this month, Turpel-Lafond released Paige's Story: Abuse, Indifference, and a Young Life Discarded, a report detailing the brief life of Paige, who spent her life in and out of foster care.

The only child of an abusive single mother with addiction and mental health problems, Paige spent the last three years of her life in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in shelters and Single Room Occupancy hotels with her mom. Eventually, Paige turned to drugs and alcohol, and died from an overdose two years ago. She was 19.

In her short life, Paige moved at least 40 times and was enrolled in 16 different schools in Fort St. James, Kamloops, and Vancouver -- schools she stopped regularly attending by Grade 7.

While most of the report's criticism is aimed at the Ministry of Children and Family Development, how schools deal with unexplained absences like Paige's is also a key problem identified by the watchdog. As Turpel-Lafond discovered, in B.C. responses vary from district to district; the only ministry-mandated response requires district superintendents, when informed a child isn't attending school, to follow-up with the parents or guardians.

''My concern is that these are largely voluntary and discretionary strategies that are used [by schools], and many of them are not effective,'' said Turpel-Lafond, adding the response from schools to Paige skipping class was ''passive.''

She said the Ministry of Education, school districts and schools "need to have a much more active approach.''

'Not impossible to find her'

Turpel-Lafond's interviews with school staff members and Paige's family and foster families found no evidence that schools tried to contact Paige or her caregivers when she skipped school. Paige's school records also showed no evidence of this.

The watchdog is concerned that Paige's absences were dismissed as part and parcel of her ''difficult family situation'' and indigenous background, a response that Turpel-Lafond described as ''institutional racism.''

The Vancouver School District disputes this, saying the youth and family outreach worker at the alternative aboriginal program Paige attended made every effort to find Paige when she stopped going school.

''There certainly are places in Vancouver where it's easier to track where kids have gone than others,'' said associate superintendent Maureen Ciarniello, ''and I think the Downtown Eastside can be a challenge sometimes.''

But Turpel-Lafond noted in her report that Paige spent much of her time walking around the Downtown Eastside or riding the SkyTrain all day.

''It was not impossible to find her,'' she said. ''Why isn't anyone connecting up with her?''

Ministries, agencies must coordinate: watchdog

When students go AWOL in Vancouver, parents are called by the school counsellor, or in the case of alternative schools, the youth and family worker, who might also visit the house if there's no phone. If a social worker is working with the child -- and the school knows this -- they're notified, too.

Paige's Story recommends the Ministry of Education work with the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the First Nations Education Steering Committee to ensure indigenous children involved with the children's ministry are going to school, and devise adequate responses if they're not.

The Vancouver School Board was already working on updating its attendance policy when Paige's report was released. Ciarniello said it's important that districts have their own strategies because every family has a different reason -- often unique to their culture, income, or home life -- for taking a child out of school.

For example, Ciarniello cited some indigenous families who head back to their home community for weeks -- sometimes over a month -- of mourning when a family or band member dies. Other families might take a mid-school-year, multi-week vacation.

The Tyee requested an interview with Education Minister Peter Fassbender, but he wasn't available. Instead, a ministry spokesperson's emailed statement said that Turpel-Lafond's recommendations are being reviewed, and the ministry ''will discuss their feasibility with school district staff and other ministries serving children and youth.''

Turpel-Lafond said she has yet to receive the ministry's response to the recommendation.

'She was really intelligent'

Despite her traumatic upbringing, and a genetic disorder that left Paige legally blind and with heart problems, Paige's Story depicts a bright young woman eager to get an education.

''She was really intelligent and had really promising results,'' said Turpel-Lafond, adding that Paige ''only attended a quarter of Grade 7 and still managed to meet or exceed all expectations.''

Paige never got beyond Grade 10, but according to Turpel-Lafond, she tried to further her education at two different Vancouver schools before she died.

The Vancouver district has improving graduation rates for indigenous students like Paige -- 70 per cent who entered Grade 12 in 2013/14 finished school. Almost 50 per cent received a diploma versus a school leaving certificate, which post-secondary institutions don't accept.

Because of the transient nature of urban indigenous students -- they often move in and out of the district -- Ciarniello said it's hard to track how many students graduate within six years of starting Grade 8, the provincial standard for measuring graduation rates.

Last year in B.C., the six-year completion rate for indigenous students was 61.6 per cent, compared to 84.2 per cent for all students. Turpel-Lafond said that's not good enough. She would like to see a ''reset'' on improving indigenous education outcomes, with established, clear goals and strategies for getting there.

She also wants government to establish independent oversight of the education ministry, much like she provides for the children's ministry.

''Everybody's definitely patting each other on the back, but I'm not seeing the outcomes for the kids improve. And someone like Paige, certainly her experience throws up a very different picture of what's happening on the ground for these kids,'' she said.  [Tyee]

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