NEWS

Ottawa School Handcuffs Autistic Boy During 'Difficult Day'

02/20/2015 02:57 EST | Updated 04/22/2015 05:59 EDT
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The mother of an autistic nine-year-old who was handcuffed by police during a "difficult day" at his Ottawa school claims the education system is failing children like her son.

An outraged Stephanie Huck said she's chosen to speak out about the incident because there are autistic kids who are "falling through the cracks."

"(School staff) are not properly trained, they're not properly educated. They need to listen. They need to be more calm with their approach."

Huck and her husband were called to their son Daniel's school on Thursday morning after being told he had been acting out in the principal's office.

They arrived to find a police officer in the school and learned their son had to be restrained, although they only found out about the use of handcuffs when Huck's husband questioned Daniel.

"He asked my son, 'did the police hurt you when they tried to hold you down?' And my son put his hands behind his back and said 'only when they put the metal things on my hands.'"

The police officer confirmed she handcuffed Daniel, but there appear to be discrepancies on just how the situation played out, Huck said.

Daniel's parents were told the officer had been at the school for a different matter and decided to handcuff Daniel of her own accord, at which point the principal demanded the cuffs be removed, Huck said.

But her son said the principal had asked for the handcuffs to be used and the vice-principal asked for them to be taken off, Huck said.

The entire situation has left Daniel's parents determined to move their son to a different school.

The Ottawa Catholic District School Board said its staff at St. Jerome Catholic School "acted appropriately to ensure the safety of everyone involved."

Ottawa police wouldn't comment on the specifics of the incident but said officers may handcuff people to protect the public, the individual being restrained or the police officer.

The incident has underscored the difficulties faced by parents of children with autism, said Marnie Potter, a family support co-ordinator with Autism Ontario.

"Every day the parents have to trust that when their child goes out in the world, other people will take care for them," said Potter, who expressed surprise at the incident.

"Getting the call that your child has been handcuffed would be a parent's worst nightmare. From our perspective it's heartbreaking that a nine-year-old child has had this experience."

What's important, Potter said, is that education staff understand how every child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is different.

"It's about making sure we continue educating and continue providing training and continue getting the services that the parents need."

For educators, there are rare times when calling 911 for help dealing with a child with autism might be necessary, but that would be "an absolute last resort," said Kate Diakiw, principal of student services with the York Region School District.

Calling police would be an option already considered in an individualized safety plan made for the student, and parents would be informed about the possibility, Diakiw explained.

Safety plans are mandated by the province for students with special needs, she said. Staff training, who writes the plans and how they are written are organized by individual school boards. Schools can also apply for extra funding for high needs students.

For many students with autism, the education system is what helps them thrive, Diakiw said, but for some, the school system is still working on ways to assist them.

"When we can work with our partners and turn the schools into hubs of wraparound support for students and their families, then I'm certain we can meet the needs of all students," she said.