BRITISH COLUMBIA

Kids locked in closets, restrained, dragged down school hallways: advocacy group

11/21/2013 02:15 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST
VANCOUVER - Children with special needs are being restrained and locked in closets for hours at a time, but the bullies at school aren't other students, says the head of an advocacy group that supports families.

Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion BC, said an online survey of 200 parents across the province suggests kids as young as five are being restrained and confined by teachers over behaviour issues that aren't being addressed in other ways.

Children subjected to such treatment are being traumatized and excluded by their classmates, Bodnar said Thursday.

"It should be a welcoming, supporting respectful environment and instead what that survey says for hundreds of children in this province is that it is actually the opposite," she said. "Children are being abandoned in rooms and they're being dragged down hallways with resulting physical injuries and traumatic psychological events that perhaps they never get over, and I think that it needs to stop."

Karen DeLong, director of community development for the organization formerly known as the BC Association for Community Living, said that in one case someone left an anonymous note on a parent's car, saying the child had been put in a closet all day.

She said some school staff seem to have no idea that autistic children can become extremely agitated when they're touched, escalating their behaviour and leading to even more extreme management techniques.

Kids who already suffer from anxiety are pushed to the brink when they're placed in rooms alone, sometimes with the lights out, DeLong said, adding that parents are often labelled "problem parents" as they advocate for their children to the point that they're burnt out and fear reprisal against their kids.

The survey, which was developed in partnership with the Family Support Institute, said 49 of the families removed their children from public schools and chose to home school or send them to a private school.

It said 80 per cent of respondents reported the school district’s failure to properly handle issues means the Education Ministry needs to take immediate action.

Nearly three quarters of parents reported they learned their child had been restrained or confined from other parents or students.

Some respondents said their children had been dragged by the wrists, held down by three adults or had wheelchair straps wrapped around their legs.

DeLong said Inclusion BC is calling on the B.C. government to create legislation that would prevent the use of restraints and seclusion and for teachers to be better trained on the needs of children with a wide range of issues.

Adrianne Wicks said her daughter's Grade 2 teacher at a school in Victoria told the other students they would have to vote on whether they wanted her to stay in the classroom or go to the resource room, where she ended up being sent, as usual.

"The education assistant was on a lunch break and the teacher claimed she wasn't able to teach because of Savannah so she held a vote," Wicks said of her now 11-year-old daughter, who has autism and a seizure disorder.

Wicks filed a human rights complaint against Victoria School District 61 on Nov. 10, 2010, Savannah's eighth birthday, "because nobody would listen to me. Nobody cared. I went everywhere.

"Everyone protected that teacher. She admits what she did but said, 'I don't think that was wrong.'"

She said she contacted school officials, then-education minister George Abbott's office and spoke with Premier Christy Clark but got nowhere, finally sending her daughter to private school in 2010.

On Thursday, Clark told reporters that children should be treated with dignity in the school system.

"I'm really concerned about some of the reports that have come out," Clark, a former education minister, said about the use of restraints and seclusion rooms.

"We're looking at whether or not there needs to be a provincewide policy on this."

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said policies around that issue are dealt with by school districts and encouraged parents to talk to teachers and principals about their concerns.

Wick's human rights complaint against the district was settled in April after a hearing date was set.

"I basically just gave in. I couldn't fight it anymore because I didn't have a lawyer," Wicks said.

She said that while her daughter is now thriving at a private school, she is still in counselling to deal with the trauma of her experience at the public school.

"Savannah cried all the time and said, `Everyone hates me.'"

At the private school, an education aide respected her daughter, and that made all the difference, Wicks said.

"She had the best EA in the world there, who understood that she was a broken child who needed to be cared for."

"Savannah is a child who reads and writes at her own grade level. She's now part of the student council. She's well spoken and she's articulate. That wouldn't have happened if she'd stayed at that school. She would have been looked at as unteachable."