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(Canada) New Market: Schools excluding disabled students; 'unchecked power'

Sept 2, 2023, New Market Today: Schools have 'unchecked power' to exclude students with disabilities: advocates
Advocates for students with disabilities have been ringing alarm bells for years about how often kids are excluded from the classroom because their needs can’t be accommodated by the school, warning the province can’t fix the problem because it doesn’t track how often it occurs.

Now that the province has begun collecting data on school exclusions, the same advocates are still dismayed: they say the province’s information is incomplete and inconsistent, and where it does exist it shows some alarmingly high numbers.

The Trillium obtained the province’s data on school exclusions and is revealing it after filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request this spring after the NDP’s education critic and Ontario Autism Coalition held a news conference to release the results of an informal survey they conducted tracking exclusions among their network.

They found that 78 children had missed 558.5 hours of school in Ontario — equivalent to 92 days — over two weeks.

The ministry’s data shows 374 students were excluded for 7,722 days in the 2021-22 school year. About half of the students — 184 — were receiving special education services.

Last spring, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told The Trillium he had data on school exclusions, but declined to share it.

"We're cognizant of data from the year prior," he said in a brief interview in the halls of Queen's Park. "And that's been informative for the government as we take action to better educate staff, support training, funding, and really try to change the culture where these kids are in schools, accommodated, respected, and more importantly, have an ability to learn in front of their peers with their teachers."

Ilinca Stefan, a staff lawyer at the ARCH Disability Law Centre, said the lack of publicly available data on exclusions allows boards to use the exclusions with impunity.

“Every once in a while, this shows up in the news, and people are shocked that it happens,” she told The Trillium.

“But there's no accountability for the school boards for excluding students with this unchecked power. Students with disabilities can and do sometimes just stay home for a year without getting any education. And under our current regime, that’s just perfectly lawful.”

Exclusions are allowed under provincial law when, according to the principal’s judgment, a student’s presence is determined to be “detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of the pupils.” They are distinct from suspensions and expulsions, and cannot be disciplinary in nature.

Advocates say this is why they are used for students with special needs, who cannot be disciplined for behaviour that results from their disability or a failure to accommodate it. All of the boards that responded to The Trillium's questions said they were used for safety.

"Students are excluded for one reason only: safety," said a spokesperson for the Near North District School Board. "They are used as a short-term 'pause' that provides teams with the time needed to gather more information, additional resources, and put plans in place that will ensure the safety of the student and the safety of others."….

The advocates The Trillium showed the data to warned it was woefully inadequate. Some large school boards reported no exclusions, which they felt was unlikely, while others have not yet reported their data. Complicating matters, the data available spans two school years when schools were periodically closed due to COVID. …

But advocates also say students most often experience “soft” or informal exclusions, that are not documented. A typical example is a principal will call home to say that there’s insufficient staff, often due to a shortage of educational assistants, and ask for the student to stay home for the day.

In other cases, the parent of a child with a disability might be asked to pick up their child early because they’re “having a hard day” and the school is worried about their ability to keep students safe.

Steve LeGault, a member of the Ontario Autism Coalition whose son was excluded for extended periods of time from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on both a hard and soft basis, said parents will agree to temporary soft exclusion to avoid the “threat” of documented hard exclusion that would keep the child out of school for longer.

"This is the thing that probably has a bigger effect on parents, but we don't even know: the data that they're required to collect is incomplete, and the data that they're not required to collect isn't present," he said, referring to "soft" exclusions.

Kate Dudley-Logue, a vice-president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said these kinds of exclusions happen so frequently it’s impossible for some parents to hold onto their jobs. …

If the province collected adequate data it could bear out what she and her colleagues see anecdotally, she said, that racialized students and students who experience language or communication barriers are excluded more often and for a longer duration.

On behalf of Lecce, Ontario's education minister, a spokesperson issued a statement saying that the province has increased funding for special education to $3.4 billion.

"Since taking office in 2018, we have funded the hiring of over 3,000 more educational assistants in schools, strengthened programs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and increased professional development opportunities for educators," Justin Saunders said. "To better support students and measure and drive transparency, since 2021, school boards have been required to record student enrolment and attendance each school year, including (the) total number of exclusions. We expect all school boards to abide by that expectation and work to better integrate and support children with special education needs."


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