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(Ireland) Massive failure to provide SPED services; hundreds of kids have nothing

July 3, 2021, Irish Times: Expelled: ‘My son is locked out of the system. He has nowhere to go’

A TEENAGER WITH A SEVERE INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY HAS BEEN EXCLUDED FROM HIS SPECIAL SCHOOL. HE’S NOT ALONE IN FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS OF A BROKEN SYSTEM… “He’s so sociable,” says his mother, Lourdes Sanchez. “He’s a bit like me, he’s a bit of a party animal. He loves music, dancing. He loves being with his peers, playing with other children. He likes laughing; he has a contagious laugh. He’s a character, really, and very, very funny. He’s happy. He’s a happy child.” Conor (16) has a rare genetic syndrome and cannot speak. He also has a severe intellectual disability and a diagnosis of autism. His difficulty in communicating means he has challenging behaviour: the frustration builds up and he becomes hard to manage for a few minutes. There have been times, with the right support, when the challenging episodes disappeared, his mother says. Lately, however, they have been more common. He might have two or three “big behaviours” in a week, which last a few minutes. Last September, just over two weeks into the new academic year, Conor was expelled from Stepping Stones Special School in Co Meath, which he had attended since 2014. The school argued that his challenging behaviour was putting the health and safety of staff and other students at risk. … “It was a complete shock to our family. We didn’t think it was possible to expel a child from a special school. For me, it implies Conor can control his behaviour. This is clearly not the case if a child has neurological disabilities and the child’s capacity and responsibility are diminished.” A Department of Education appeal committee ordered Stepping Stones to re-admit Conor in January this year. But the school won a High Court challenge last month over its decision to expel him on the basis that the appeal committee’s decision was based on “flimsy evidence”. In the meantime, Conor has been out of school for 16 months (apart from a brief return in September). Stepping Stones Special School was approached for comment, but did not respond. Lourdes says she has applied to about 15 special schools. All of them have said they are oversubscribed and have no space. Lourdes, meanwhile, is on sick leave from her job at Intel. She spends her days preparing paperwork, lodging appeals, contacting education authorities and public representatives – so far, she says, to no avail. As she sees it, Conor has fallen through the cracks of a system that doesn’t want to know about him…. REDUCED TIMETABLES There are hundreds of children with special needs like Conor who have been excluded from the education system for months or years, say campaigners and researchers. According to official figures from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), more than 200 children (mainly at primary level) are currently diagnosed as requiring an education which meets their needs but cannot find a school place with the right supports. In addition, campaigners say there are alarming numbers of children on reduced timetables or partial school days because their schools (mainstream and special) argue that they cannot cope with them.) While there are no official statistics, research by academics at Technological University Dublin estimates that one in four children with intellectual disabilities is being “suspended” through the use of short school days. Education, Behaviour and Exclusion: The Experience and Impact of Short School Days on Children with Disabilities and Their Families in the Republic of Ireland, polled almost 400 parents of children with disabilities. No one prepares you for the constant battle for services, even battling for basic human rights. Nobody can prepare you for that The research – undertaken for the Inclusion Ireland support group – found the average short school day lasted only two to three hours, usually because of challenging behaviour, with many children only allowed to attend school for less than an hour a day. “Children are being denied their right to education because of the lack of acceptance and accommodation of their differences,” according to the report’s lead author, Deborah Brennan of Technological University Dublin. “Many parents told us they are being forced either to accept a short school day or to remove their child from school.” While expulsions are rare at primary level – about 30 a year – they are disproportionately high in special schools or schools with special classes…. A poll of 300 families with autistic children by AsIAm found that more than half of respondents said their child had been out of education for anything from a few months to three years or more. The vast majority said they had no meaningful contact from Tusla, the State agency responsible for ensuring children attend school. In many cases, parents said they had to give up their jobs to take on caring or educational roles in the home. Adam Harris the founder of the autism charity AsIAm, says the scale of the problem amounts to a national scandal…. That, she says, is when the fear arrived. “What type of life is he going to have? Will he go to school like every other child? Is society going to accept him for who he is? What will happen when we’re not around? “But no one prepares you for the constant battle for services, even battling for basic human rights. Nobody can prepare you for that.” The reality is that many of these children in our education system are invisible. … The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (2004), or Epsen Act, was a ground-breaking piece of legislation that followed legal battles and campaigns by mothers such as Kathy Sinnott and Marie O’Donoghue. This law sets out, among other things, how every child with a disability should receive a specific plan for their education, taking their needs into account. However, 17 years on, key sections that ensures every child can access a proper programme based on their assessed needs have never commenced. Another piece of impressive legislation is the Disability Act (2005), which stipulates that a child is entitled to an assessment of their needs within six months of application. This is due to the vital importance of early intervention. Latest figures show that this is not happening in 90 per cent of cases. Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon has said his office has serious concerns about “ongoing violations” of the rights of children with disabilities due to significant delays for children in accessing an assessment of need…. The NCSE, the State body responsible for planning and advising on education for children with special needs, could not provide figures for how many children will be without an appropriate school place next September. This, it said, was because it was engaging in “continual planning for special education provision”.


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