Parent Survey Shows Schools Excluding Kids with Special Needs

Kids sent home for staff shortages, meltdowns, leading to family strife.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Nov 2017 |

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

A survey of over 800 parents of kids with special needs conducted by the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils shows about 40 per cent had their child sent home due to staff shortages last year — an experience repeated more than 10 times for 12 per cent of respondents.

The survey comes on the heels of a growing outcry from parents across the province — and the country — over exclusion of their kids with special or complex learning needs from a public school system legally required to educate them.

Reached online from Sept. 15 to Oct. 28, 843 parents from 51 of B.C.’s 60 school districts responded to the survey. A little over 40 per cent of respondents — 343 —had their child sent home for behavioural reasons in the 2016-17 school year. About 12 per cent were sent home for that reason more than 10 times.

Almost half — 372 — indicated their child was scheduled for less than a full day of school last year, which can be a prearranged agreement between the parents and the school.

However, 15.6 per cent of parents said their kids were scheduled for less than half a day on a regular basis.

Eleven-year-old Jack Leitch has never spent a full day in public school, which is why his mother Sarah Leitch enrolled him in a distance learning program this year for Grade 6.

Jack has eight diagnosed disorders including Pathological Demand Avoidance, a form of autism that makes it difficult to accept instruction, particularly in a classroom with up to 30 students and just one teacher.

His problems aren’t limited to one school: Jack’s attended five schools in Prince George and Kelowna over seven years.

Since kindergarten, Leitch estimates she has picked up Jack from school an average of twice a week because his education assistant was sick or the school couldn’t handle Jack’s “crazy violent meltdowns.”

“If they did math in the afternoons, he would always miss math. We’d get a report card — which I thought was so ridiculous — and he’d get a D in math,” she said, adding there was no flexibility to adapt to his needs.

Leitch was forced to quit her job to be on-call for Jack. She declared bankruptcy in 2013, and the stress on her family contributed to the end of her 20-year marriage.

BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils director Karen Nordquist has heard “hundreds” of similar stories from B.C. parents.

“With the proper supports in place, I believe that the vast majority of students can be successful in the classroom setting,” she said. “This is a significant area where I believe discrimination is still very prevalent, and that is on the basis of cognitive or physical ability.”

Now that Jack is enrolled in Kleos, a private kindergarten to Grade 12 distance learning school that includes five hours of education assistant home visits per week, his academics have improved. Tuition is covered by government funding.

“It’s actually been a very good program so far,” said Leitch. But Jack’s social-emotional learning is stunted by learning at home.

“The only thing that I feel is lacking is I want him to have a regular school day where he goes and has to interact with other kids.”

But changes need to be made first. Leitch and the confederation want more formal, specialized training requirements for education assistants working with students with special needs, as well as funding to hire additional assistants so their sick days never result in a child staying home.

Leitch also wants smaller class sizes for students like Jack, and space in schools where he can go during outbursts. But these spaces can’t be closets, back halls, or outside — all places Jack has been sent in the past.

For its part, the Ministry of Education acknowledged via email to The Tyee that hiring an additional 3,500 teachers this year to meet class size and composition requirements is causing problems.

“We have had reports that some districts may have had to put special needs teachers into classrooms as a temporary solution to meet class composition requirements and we are told that’s probably going to change now that classrooms are settling in,” reads the email.

“Families should know that this is a transitional year.”

The ministry has created a “panel of experts” to look at challenges specifically for special needs education, including each district’s issues with hiring and retaining specialized educators. The initial report is expected in December.

Nordquist says trustees, parents, teachers and students must be consulted, too. “It’s not a simple fix. It will involve conversation amongst all the parties in education.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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