Children with special needs struggle for education

The calls and emails arrive with distressing frequency.

Karen Nordquist does her best to respond, but it’s a daunting task.

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“I’m a volunteer, but this is a full-time job for me,” she said.

“I couldn’t even begin to make a dent in the need.”

As a director with the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, Nordquist has been inundated with requests for help from parents whose children with special needs are being denied their legal right to a full public education.

In some cases, schools send children home or limit their hours. In others, students are allowed in class, but never receive the help they need to learn.

“I hear a lot of these stories from so many families across the province,” Nordquist said.

“It’s not any particular school district. These are broad, systemic issues that are happening everywhere.

“The impact that it is having on some of our families — I can’t [overstate] the extent of the suffering that I’ve heard.”

She’s not alone. Inclusion B.C., which advocates for people with developmental disabilities; BCEdAccess, a parent advocacy group; and the Family Support Institute all say they’re hearing from parents across the province unhappy with the state of inclusive education.

“I think it’s everywhere, it really is,” said Tracy Humphreys, one of the founders of BCEdAccess. The group has a private Facebook page with more than 1,400 members “and we’re growing pretty quickly every day, sadly,” she said.

Parents say that, for all the well-meaning words about inclusive education from the government, school districts and administrators, the system too often breaks down on the front lines and leaves children stranded.

“They seem to think they’re doing very well with our children because they’re managing,” said Jen Wark, who has two children with autism in the Greater Victoria school district.

“But they’re not educating. So we have two kids that are very well behaved, that are in the classroom, that are floating along with everyone else, but they’re not making their learning inclusive.”

Advocates say it has been an issue for years due to cuts to specialist teachers, insufficient training, too few education assistants and a general lack of support for students with special needs.

The problems, however, have been exacerbated this year by a shortage of teachers needed to fulfil a Supreme Court of Canada decision that restored class-size and composition rules.

Glen Hansman, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, said the ongoing shortage means special- education teachers get redeployed to cover for absent classroom teachers. As a result, students with special needs miss programs or get told to stay home.

“Students with special needs, increasingly, are being expected to shoulder staff shortages in school districts,” he said.

“And that’s a problem.”

The Supreme Court of Canada, in a 2012 ruling, said the B.C. School Act makes clear that all learners have the right to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to society.

“Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury,” the court said. “For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

Still, parents and advocates say students with special needs are often the first to pay the price when gaps appear in the system.

Tammy Brownlee said her son, who has autism, has been in three school districts on Vancouver Island. Over the years, she has been called repeatedly to pick him up early from school — either because of staff shortages or because there were insufficient supports in place to manage his behaviour.

“It’s hard to work because you don’t know when you’re going to be getting a phone call,” she said.

Nordquist hears that often in her role with the confederation of parent advisory councils.

“I’ve had families that have had to take out second mortgages and declare bankruptcy because somebody has to be on call to pick up their children,” she said.

The confederation surveyed more than 800 parents of students with special needs last fall and nearly half reported that their children were prevented from attending school full time. The amount of time missed ranged from half an hour to more than three hours a day.

“In many cases, if the educational assistant who helps to support the students with more complex learning needs is absent from the class, the parents of these students are told to keep their children at home,” the confederation stated in its report.

Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion B.C., said it’s a human rights violation to send students with special needs home whenever there’s a shortage.

“I find it concerning that it’s a group of parents who have kids with special needs who are more frequently put in this position than any other group of parents,” she said.

Even when children are permitted to remain in school, parents often have to fight to make sure they have the supports they need to learn.

Wark said her daughter’s education assistant was removed for part of the day this year to cover for other children in another classroom.

She said she would have been less concerned if the school had offered any proof that her daughter was excelling and no longer needed the additional help.

“They haven’t produced one document, one evaluation, stating that she’s met her goals in her [individual education plan] and yet we’re still fighting with the school to have her properly supported again,” she said.

The support was subsequently restored, but Jen and her husband, Darren, say it’s exhausting constantly having to advocate for their children’s right to an education.

“Why are we allowing our system to fail our kids so badly?” Darren said.

Nordquist of the BCCPAC and Humphreys of BCEdAccess said there are too many parents like the Warks facing years of advocacy.

“Unfortunately, what usually happens is parents have to pursue it — sometimes all the way up to the Human Rights Tribunal — in order to get what they’re asking for,” Humphreys said.

“And it’s really time-consuming and exhausting. It’s emotionally draining. It can burn relationships in your school and in your district, which is very hard on parents, hard on the child. And it can be very expensive.”

Ultimately, it’s too hard for many parents, who either pull their children from schools, districts, or, if they have the resources, the public system altogether.

Nordquist said each family has to fight for their own child over and over again. “It’s like putting out a forest fire with a watering can. We need to start looking at systemic solutions.”

Education Minister Rob Fleming said the government made significant strides this year, hiring 3,500 new teachers — including special education teachers, teacher-psychologists and counsellors. There are also 600 more education assistants in the system this year, he said.

“New kids that may have special learning needs in the school system are coming into the smallest kindergarten classes ever,” he said. “They’re getting a stronger start. They’re getting more individual time with their teacher.”

In addition, Fleming said, an ongoing review will look at how the province distributes $5.65 billion to 60 school boards and will pay particular attention to special education. The ministry is also updating its inclusive education policy and talking to universities about whether student teachers get enough training before entering inclusive classrooms.

“There are some situations — and we hear about them — where kids are not succeeding or being able to learn in the classroom or there are teacher shortages on given days because we have depleted the substitute teaching list to hire full-time new teachers,” Fleming said. “Those are problems we want to work with school districts and teachers’ associations to fix.”

The BCTF wants to see more on-the-job training for teachers to help them support particular students or classrooms. Hansman, the union’s president, said there also needs to be a provincewide plan to deal with the challenges around inclusive education.

“It can’t be left just to 60 school districts,” he said.

In the end, Inclusion B.C.’s Bodnar said it will take more than resources to fix the system.

“We’ve heard about issues in public education and inclusion for many years, so it’s not just the Supreme Court decision,” she said. “It’s a cultural shift we need to have in our education system that looks at students with special needs as equal and deserving of the same quality of education as every other student.”

Failing to act, Nordquist said, runs the risk that people will use the current problems as an excuse to further isolate students with special needs.

“The conversation unfortunately, for some, turns to: ‘Well, this just proves that inclusion isn’t working and we need these separate schools,’ ” she said. “But it can work and when it works it is the best education.”

With proper training and supports, behaviours can be managed and every student can thrive and learn, Nordquist said. The best practices for teaching student with special needs are often the best practices for all students, she said.

For all the upsetting emails she has received, Nordquist said the best ones come from families getting the support they need.

“The most rewarding emails are having a parent contact me three months later and say that their child, who had such low self-esteem, felt so blamed and isolated and singled out, is now thriving in the classroom and making friends.

“And it is working.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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