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It's time to re-examine inclusive education policies in our classrooms

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Two separate instances (in June 2014 in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and February 2015 in the Ottawa Catholic Board) of students with autism being restrained with handcuffs at school to try and "diffuse" their respective situations underscore the public's limited understanding of disability and impairment in Ontario's education system in general and autism in particular. This commentary attempts to shed light on some of what went wrong.

In Ontario, on September 1, 2012, Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act came into force, amending the Education Act. It set out expectations for all school boards to provide safe, inclusive and accepting learning environments in which every student can succeed (including children with disabilities).

The population of people of all ages with disabilities is growing in Canada and internationally. In 2006, Statistics Canada found that over 121,000 children between the ages of five and 14 had a disability related to learning. (In 2006, the Statistics Canada conducted the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS), which stated that 121,080 children between the ages of 5 and 14 had a disability related to learning. Additionally, the two most reported disabilities of this report were learning disabilities (69.3 per cent) and chronic health conditions (66.6 per cent).)

The rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis has increased 30 per cent in the past two years, from one in 88 children to one in 68 children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty verbally communicating with others and, when forced to work in distracting environments, can become frustrated.

From an educational perspective, because each child's experience of autism is different, their individual learning strategies and education plans will vary. Inclusive education polices for children with disabilities are determined by provincial or territorial governments; each specific school board of that province or territory creates their own special education policy.

In Ontario, the school principal's responsibilities include ensuring that: appropriately qualified staff are assigned to teach special ed. classes; school board special ed. policies are communicated to staff, students, and parents/guardians; identification and placement of exceptional students is done in accordance with the Education Act and school board policies; an Individual Education Plan (IEP) -- including a transition plan -- is developed and implemented in consultation with the child's parents/guardians (who receive a copy of the IEP), and that the program set out in the IEP is delivered to the student. Furthermore, the principal ensures that appropriate assessments are requested–if necessary -- and that parental consent is obtained. An Educational Assistant, under the direction of the principal, may be required to "assist in reaction to emergencies using the proper procedures and support the implementation of safety plans for exceptional students."

This means -- at least on paper -- that if a child with autism or any other disability/impairment has attended a school since September, the school team (principal and educators) should have had the opportunity to get to know the child's strengths, weaknesses, calming strategies, and causes of distress, and created a behaviour or "safety plan" and an IEP (Individual Education Plan) to support each student and their parents/guardians.

Safety plans are extremely specific; for example, "If X begins to say the following words, stomp their feet, etc. move X to calm space or calm room for 5 minutes. These are the signs that demonstrate that X is calm. Only remove X from calm area if X appears to be calm for more than 3 minutes."

Financial dispersion to students with disabilities varies from province to territory; however, for money to be allotted a student must be assessed (likely with an Individual Education Plan in place). Classroom teachers, who create the context for learning, are requesting more resources; not just financial, but resources to build capacity and create the expertise and confidence needed by education staff to address more diverse classrooms and help create a more equitable system in which all students are supported regardless of their needs.

Given current provincial policies, what went so wrong in at least two Ottawa schools? It is safe to assume that both students' legal right to be supported with a safety plan and an IEP was understood by the Board and school, and that these measures would have been put into place. However, it is also reasonable to ask why these measures failed to support these students.

Parents are asked to acknowledge and sign off on an IEP and safety plan: judging from the reaction of both sets of parents, it is difficult to believe that they knowingly signed off on a document that states "have a police officer handcuff our child if there is no other option." Were there alternatives indicated in the safety plan that would have prevented the involvement of the police and their use of handcuffs?

The safety of students with disabilities -- a vulnerable population -- is the responsibility of all supporting individuals in their lives, from parents' involvement in their child's education program and community life, to the knowledge and execution of plans by their education team. While police officers have a responsibility to protect all members of the community, with the frequency of these cases being reported concurrently, are we dealing with a more systemic issue of lack of knowledge in disability and aggression in another public resource body?

Inclusive education policies and their implementation must be re-examined to ensure that more students do not continue to "fall through the cracks," and that our education system serves and responds to the unique educational and social needs of all students.

Helena Towle is an Ottawa-based disability rights advocate who is working to support children with disabilities and their families, specifically their siblings. Helena holds a Master's degree in Critical Disability Studies. 

To find out more about inclusive education policy and the funding allotments of each province and territory, read the full report, Disability and Inclusion in Canadian Education: Policy, Procedure, and Practice.

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