From our report and recommendations to the Ontario government: Human Rights in special education

 We are blogging each section of our Report and Recommendations to the Ontario Government’s Autism Advisory Committee. Read the full report here: Ontario Recommendations- Inclusion is the New Gold Standard

Lack of Transparency Means More Abuse
According to a report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the province’s special education system has not changed significantly in 40 years. Special education classrooms in Ontario have many of the hallmarks of the institutional days: including restraints, isolation and systemic exclusions.

The Province and school boards currently lack meaningful tracking mechanisms to stop abuse. There is no publicly-accessible record of the number and degree of instances of isolation, restraint, sexual assault, exploitation and other abuse in Ontario schools and other institutions.

There are also no uniform codes across districts for tracking these.

Ontario school boards and other agencies also do not tend to share data nor report on general conditions; overall, they lack transparency. We were told by several government departments when we asked for statistics about abuse that “the content of individual complaints are private”; however, this explanation does not in any way address the dearth of general statistical data on this issue in our province.

By contrast, countries such as the UK keep records of complaints and even require workers to report the incidence of events such as the use of restraint. Because they do so, the UK is able to notice trends: for example, the recent spike in the use of restraints there could be reported in the media and acted on. This is not currently possible in Ontario.

Neglect is also a serious human rights issue that is not tracked. Within the special education classroom, lack of access to the outdoors, free play and physical activity is all too common. As one mom of a 6-year old autistic boy in a Scarborough school reports:

“I found out at the end of the semester the teachers had kept my son and his class indoors for recess every day since January, because they didn’t want to do recess monitoring. They gave the kids iPads to play with and never went outside once.”

The use of isolation rooms, which were recently banned in Alberta and should be merely a nightmare from the past in our province, is increasing. When Sheila Bennett a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, learned of more school districts in Ontario building more seclusion rooms, she said:

“It really horrifies me…When an isolation room exists, it becomes a viable alternative for behaviour and inhibits our ability as experts and educators and compassionate people to find solutions that work better.”

Testimonial and Case
(cw: child abuse)
There is no excuse for the abuse that autistic and IDD students face. They are often afraid to tell their parents what is happening and in some cases can’t communicate enough of the details for therapists or parents to understand and take action.

One woman from Eastern Ontario spoke to us about her daughter (who is physically disabled) being confined for the convenience of staff in her classroom. A fellow student took a cell phone video of the incident and when confronted, school administrators demanded to know the student’s name so they could discipline her for having a cell phone in class!

In Peel District (Ontario) a family is suing the School Board for placing their autistic son in an isolation room frequently, sometimes for the entire day. According to an investigation by Toronto Life, his first and second grade teachers “confined him to a small room the size of a walk-in closet, with concrete walls and no carpets or padding.

“Teachers would sit on a chair in front of the door to prevent him from leaving, and they covered the small window of the room with construction paper, blocking out the light. ‘If I kept acting up in the room,’ said Christian Thorndyke, ‘they’d add on more time.’ If he had time left over at the end of the day, he was told he’d need to return to the room the next day.”

“At a new school in the same district, 9-year-old Christian was also isolated, despite a letter from his therapist asking the school to stop. Christian often begged for food or water, or to use the washroom, and was ignored. Once, he urinated on the floor; he says he was given a mop and told to clean it up. One day, the stress and humiliation became overwhelming. Christian broke down. He wrote on the walls and began choking himself with his hands.”

With parents banned from many special education classrooms and some teacher groups fighting against cameras in the classroom, there is no transparency. Without transparency, more abuse happens.

Recommendations

  • Make existing special education classrooms transparent, to prevent abuse.
    • Have cameras in all special education classrooms to keep instructors and staff accountable (cameras-in-classrooms program).
    • Make it illegal for a special education program to ban parents from entering the classroom (as many programs do now).
      • Create an environment where families are welcome as partners in education, not “outsiders”.
    • Put teachers and aides on notice: there is no excuse for abuse or neglect.
  • Implement universal systems (and codes) for tracking the following:
    • School exclusions (modeled on New Brunswick’s new Attendance Tracking Tool)
    • Use of restraint
    • Use the data to develop better approaches, to prevent exclusions and restraint.
  • Ban isolation rooms in schools, as the Province of Alberta has done..
  • Review human rights policies for our prisons. If anything is currently allowed to be used on children in a school that is not allowed on inmates: ban it.
  • Educate all teachers and staff on trauma-informed care and appropriate de-escalation techniques, per best practices in other jurisdictions (for data and helpful resources, contact Inclusion Alberta or Inclusion BC).
  • Consult with autistic youth in special education and with autistic adult who were in special education about what needs to change in our special education classrooms.