Parents fear for future of Victor students with special needs

The Greater Victoria school district is facing a backlash over its proposal to displace students with special needs from Victor School so that it can be used for kindergarten to Grade 5 students beginning in 2020.

Parents say they were blindsided by the changes, which form part of the district’s plan for coping with rising enrolment and limited space by realigning school-catchment boundaries.

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“It came out of nowhere,” said Marcus Pollard, whose 15-year-old son, Nathaniel, has autism and attends Victor School with other children who have disabilities or fragile medical conditions.

Pollard said the first he heard of the proposed move was in a letter from the district to parents advising them of a meeting at the school two days later.

The letter explained that the district would begin phasing kindergarten and Grade 1 students into Victor School, and that some existing students would be able to complete their education there, while others would move to an undetermined location.

“You look at their timeline and they say nothing is decided, but they’re talking about having our kids in a new school at the beginning of the 2020 school year,” Pollard said.

“So that means they’ve essentially got 16 or 17 months to build a state-of-art school for our kids at a location that they don’t have. Are you kidding me?”

Pollard said such a move will be devastating for his son and others who have found a home at Victor School after struggling to fit in elsewhere in the school system. Nathaniel has been thriving at Victor, attending each day and making friends, Pollard said. “He’s learning for the first time in years.”

Roshan Danesh confirmed that parents of the approximately 20 students at Victor School received no advance notice of the proposal to turn the facility into a regular catchment school. His 14-year-old son, Darwyn, has been at Victor School for four years.

“He has Down syndrome and he’s autistic, as well, and he suffers from a severe heart condition,” Danesh said. “He’s one of a group of students that has such complex special needs that he needs to be in an environment that is supported for those types of children.

“Victor School’s designed and has been there for those highly complex students for many years.”

He said parents have asked regularly over the past year or so if there were any plans for Victor School.

“Always the answer has been no, nothing’s in the planning.”

Now, he said, the district is saying that Victor students will be relocated to a “purpose-built” location. “When we asked school officials what that meant, they confirmed that there’s been no planning, there’s no location, there’s no anything related to that.”

Tracy Humphreys, founder and chair of BCEdAccess Society, said the district’s handling of the situation raises questions. “It feels like a bit of an after-thought to consult,” she said. “And the bottom line is this looks like them trying to find a place for typical kids and so they’re ousting kids with disabilities. That’s what I see and that’s not good.”

Greater Victoria school district secretary-treasurer Mark Walsh said medically fragile students might be able to stay on at Victor for some time, because it will not be filled with elementary students right away.

“We certainly understand that we need to make sure that our plan for those students needs to be as supportive and positive as it possibly can be,” he said.

Walsh said the district deliberately did not propose a specific alternative right away, without first speaking to parents.

“We thought that that consultation with that parent group is incredibly important,” he said. “So No. 1 we didn’t want to presuppose the outcome of the consultation itself, and No. 2 is there are a number of options that we could use for our students at Victor but certainly we wanted to hear from parents.”

He said that in the event the boundary review and its proposals go through, “we need a great outcome for those students that serves them as well or better then they are currently being served.”

B.C.’s former child watchdog, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, acting as legal counsel for Darwyn Danesh and his parents, has sent a letter urging the school board to reconsider its process.

“Planning to relocate these students to an ‘undisclosed location’ without clarity around the process to address and accommodate their rights, interests and complex needs is unacceptable,” she writes.

Roshan Danesh said he hopes the district will take action. “There’s time to repair this now, and they need to sit down and properly remove Victor from the planning as they go forward and have a separate process around it.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

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