Our Report to the Federal Government: Part 5, Education Policy

We are blogging our report and recommendations to the Government of Canada, by section. Below is our discussion and recommendations on education policy.

Full report: A4A National Policy Report & Recommendations, 2019

Inclusion: early childhood & school age
Segregation is the number one problem facing our community; it has a devastating impact on our health and potential. Segregation begins when autistic children as young as 2 or 3 are sent to IBI centres instead of being integrated into their communities. They are then streamed into special education at school and graduate into segregated lives, in housing, employment and social life.

This pattern of segregation has to end. We need to reform our preschool community options for universal design. We also need to apply accessible design in Canada’s public schools. There are many successful models of inclusion (some right here in Canada) that policymakers can learn from. We are happy to share them with the federal government as we did with the Ontario provincial government.

Within Canadian school boards, there is a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusion but rarely is it applied to disabled students. As Sheila Bennett, Education professor at Brock University states: “Those terms seem to apply to a lot of populations, just not this one.” Professor Bennett is the co-author of the excellent 2018 report If Inclusion Means Everyone, Why Not Me? which focuses on the unmet needs of disabled students in our province.

A report by People for Education from 2014 showed that 1/2 of principals in the Toronto District School Board had phoned parents some mornings and told them to keep their children at home in part because there were not enough support workers that day. In a 2018 study, People for Education reported that 2/3 of their survey respondents report their IDD or autistic children being excluded from field trips and extracurricular activities and 1/3 reported that their child didn’t have access to an educational assistant when they needed one.

A survey by ARCH Disability Law Centre found that many students are excluded from school, with no official tracking or due process. According to Renu Mandhane, Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, in 2017-18: “25% of parents reported being told not to bring their child to school, while more than half (54 per cent) said their child had to leave school early on a regular basis.”

Canada needs universal tracking for restraint and seclusion in schools. 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.

Canadian 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. 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.

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 was reported in the media and acted on. Last week in the UK, the National Health Service said that it will stop locking up, isolating and physically restraining autistic children after an inquiry stated that it was damaging to their health. It has given itself an 18-month timeline.

Likewise, in Alberta, when parents got together to self-report the use of restraint and seclusion by creating an independent survey and report (since the government was not tracking it), they got action from their government. This fall, the government tracked schools’ use of seclusion and found that it was used more than 700 times in the city of Edmonton’s public schools in just one month. These statistics are essential towards addressing the problem, but in the rest of Canada they are not being kept, so the problem gets swept under the rug.

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.”

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.”

These are the kinds of stories that we hear from families and they are the reason that advocacy groups are taking legal action. For example, a lawsuit filed this week by a group including autistic self-advocates alleges that students with disabilities in a Washington DC school district experience unjustified discrimination, psychological trauma, and physical harm from the widespread and improper use of restraint and seclusion and that the district has a pattern of using “seclusion techniques as punishment to silence, control, detain, and segregate students with disabilities.” As our self-advocacy groups grow across Canada, we will also become partners in litigation on these issues.

With parents banned from many special education classrooms in Canada and some teacher groups fighting against proposals to have cameras in the classroom, there is no transparency. Without transparency, more abuse happens. And there are no universal guidelines–access is entirely dependent on the individual environment of a specific district.

Some school districts and unions have balked at the “costs” of transparency, accountability and inclusion mandates. But in reality, inclusion comes mainly from a shift in approach and attitude, towards acceptance and openness to diverse students and the broader community. It is also true that without buy-in from administrators, even the most expensive inclusion programs will not succeed and that when inclusion is rolled out effectively, it is more affordable and sustainable than segregated learning.
Inclusion recommendations: early childhood and school age

Early childhood 

  • De-fund IBI centres and ABA practices and redirect funding towards science-based and inclusive approaches.
  • AAC education programs for healthcare providers, teachers and others in the community so that they can communicate directly with their students/clients who use AAC.
  • Create a mandatory inclusion education program for programs for the early years, so that autistic children do not get excluded in these spaces.
  • Meaningful consultation with nonspeaking adult autistics and those with high support needs about what needs to change for autistic children with high support needs.

School safety and inclusion

  • Amend regulations such as the IPRC (O. Reg. 181/98) to require students with disabilities to be placed in a “common learning environment” as envisioned in New Brunswick’s Policy 322.
  • Ontario: Remove PPM 140 (2007) and allow families to use classroom support persons other than the districts’ ABA providers.
  • Develop a national tool for tracking of school exclusions, to be used universally across districts, using the New Brunswick model, to gather data about the scope of the problem and measure whether it is being addressed.
  • Procedural protections for students who are excluded– g., via s. 265(1)(m), giving families similar appeal rights as those available for suspensions and expulsions (see: Part XIII of the Education Act).
  • Make existing special education classrooms transparent, to prevent abuse.
    • Have cameras in all special education classrooms.
    • Make it illegal for a special education program to ban parents from entering the classroom.
    • Incentivize environments where families are welcome as partners in education, not “outsiders”.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • Have all students in the classroom provide input into inclusion. They have wonderful ideas and this empowers them.
  • National campaign to remove barriers to involvement in in sports/extra-curricular activities at schools for homeschooled kids. Autistic students who cannot currently attend school due to barriers should not face further barriers in being involved in community life.