As the number of suspensions decline for students with special needs in the Abbotsford School District over a two-year period, one advocate says more work needs to be done.
In a timeline starting from September 2016 through to June 2018, comprising the 2016/17 and 2017/18 school years, data obtained by The News through a freedom of information request show a generally declining monthly rate of suspensions for special needs students.
In total, the 2016/17 school year saw 225 suspensions of students with special needs, compared with 174 in 2017/18.
Superintendent Kevin Godden says a big part of the declining rate of suspensions of students with special needs can be credited to programs with the YMCA and the Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association.
“Just in general, we’ve come to learn, I think, as a system broadly, that giving kids a holiday at home doesn’t teach them how to improve their conduct,” Godden says. “So these other opportunities are more instructional and have proven to be a better success as far as recidivism.”
But Heidi Smit Vinois – an Abbotsford-based advocate with BCEdAccess, a provincial society that advocates access to education for special needs students – says exclusion goes far beyond official suspensions.
Not reflected in the suspension records, Smit Vinois says, is when students “just disappeared from school and never completed.”
While the overall completion rate reported by the Ministry of Education in 2017/18 sits at 85 per cent, for students with special needs, that sinks to 70 per cent. That’s still a vast improvement on the completion rates of the mid-2000s, which sat in the mid-40 per cent range.
Also not included in the suspension rates “are the parents who need to pick up their child, because they’re not making it through the day,” Smit Vinois says in an interview with The News.
“It’s also not including kids who can’t go on field trips and can’t go on field trips unless the parent comes, because they don’t have enough support for that student. It also doesn’t include things where your child can’t be in the Christmas play because we don’t have an [educational assistant] there in the evening.”
“As great as the information is on suspensions, there’s a whole other conversation of exclusion that is happening now that is not reported,” Smit Vinois says.
“That’s huge, because it takes weeks and weeks for a school district to, in some cases, come up with a plan [for the student to return to school]. There’s kids who’ve missed a whole year of school … and they maybe come up with a plan with one month left, and it doesn’t work because the kid’s been out of school. That’s not going to be recorded. That’s the tragedy of the situation.”
Smit Vinois first came into contact with BCEdAccess when she needed help navigating the system with her own child. She found the organization to be so helpful that she ultimately got involved.
She also advocates through the district parent advisory council for parents of students with special needs, a position created to help walk parents through administrative processes to support their child.
“By the time a parent reaches me, it’s almost always a critical point,” Smit Vinois says.
“So many parents, they just have no idea what to do, no idea where to go. What I do in many cases is sit with them in meetings and help facilitate that conversation and help walk them through it, because it’s incredibly traumatic … I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but it’s like system trauma – trauma from navigating the system.”
She acknowledges that at times a break is “completely appropriate,” and that everybody needs time to “decompress” before reconvening to find a way to support the child returning to school.
“We don’t do that fast enough, first of all, and second of all, it’s avoidable in so many circumstances with proper support,” Smit Vinois says.
“To be fair, though, I have seen many, many teachers pour their heart and soul into this, many principals. I’ve seen really cohesive, amazing support teams, where we’re maybe just missing one piece, or we just can’t get that one thing.”
At a May school board meeting meeting, Smit Vinois presented the results of an “exclusion tracker” put together by BCEdAccess, using parental input from around the province.
Of those who responded to the BCEdAccess survey, Smit Vinois said 36 per cent said their child missed anywhere from 15 minutes to five hours of school. Meanwhile, 25.6 per cent said their child missed a full day and 24.9 per cent responded “other,” meaning multiple days missed.
“When crises happen in school, we end up as parents feeling that full effect at home, because lots of times, the kid can even hold it mostly together at school, for example, communicating upset and frustration by throwing a board game, stuff like that,” she says.
“What happens when they get home, when they really get to decompress, is tragic.”
She says the biggest issue is just a lack of supports for children with special needs.
“It’s systemic in that we need to look at the funding. We have the second-lowest per-pupil funding in the country. So that’s top-down. We have got to invest more in the services for students with special needs,” Smit Vinois says.
She adds that education assistants see high turnover – “you can’t sustain a family on what an EA makes,” she says. “There [are] so many EAs that have two jobs, three job.”
Superintendent Kevin Godden with the Abbotsford School District has a long history working with students with special needs as a specialist teacher and in district management overseeing special needs education.
Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
Godden, says he’d be “the first one in line” if the ministry were offering more resources for special needs education, but adds that the issue is “more complex than I think it is painted.”
For Godden, it’s not just about the number of support staff and resources available, but also about the adequacy of training for regular classroom teachers.
“There’s an expectation for teachers, now, to have some background in working with diverse learners, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re not there yet,” Godden says.
He adds that teachers coming out of school now have more of that expertise than teachers did coming out of school 15 years ago.
“But the fact is, we have many teachers in our system who need that support,” Godden says.
“One of the things that we’re doing right now, is inviting teachers to take the diploma program so that they can build on their classroom expertise with this other expertise. So that’s going to take some time to catch up … Typically the issue is recruiting passionate people to take the [specialist] program.”
Godden’s own background, before he became superintendent, was largely in working with students with special needs, and before he became a teacher, he volunteered with the Special Olympics.
With that experience, Godden says he’s well aware of the challenges with inclusive education.
In part, he says education for students with special needs tends to be more complex, and adds that the “partnership that exists between the parent and the school must be … stronger than any partnership for kids without special needs,” as the family and school collaborate on an individual education plan.
“So while you could point to issues like a student being asked to stay home as a failure in the system, I think broader view of that needs to consider the fact that there are times when parents of kids with special needs have a working relationship with the school,” Godden says.
This graph shows the rate of suspensions for students with special needs. The black line – with a trend line showing a declining rate of suspensions – is the overall rate of suspensions. The blue line is in-school suspensions, red is level-one out-of-school suspensions, yellow is level-two out-of-school suspensions and green is level-three out-of-school suspensions. Levels one through three are increasing in severity.
Data obtained through a freedom of information request
Through those relationships, he adds, “they recognize that some of the challenges that exist at home also exist in the school. Rather than try to respond based on rules and policies, the driver is a focus on the child and the relationship between the parent, the learning resource teacher, the support staff and the classroom teacher.”
But when a student must stay at home, Smit Vinois says, that puts a financial strain on that family, as a potentially income-earning parent would then have to stay home as well .
Smit Vinois says the education system needs to “change the mindset around inclusion” and how the ministry and school districts address keeping special needs students in school.
“We say that we need all these adaptations, and then we make these concessions so that we can help these students succeed in school. We need to stop looking at it that way. This is not above and beyond; this is a human right, equitable access to education, and this is a person’s dignity.”
To prevent a child from slipping further later on in live, Smit Vinois stresses the importance of supports for children who are in the first six years of school and who are still developing their “road maps about how to navigate life.”
That investment can improve an individual’s development into adulthood and reduce other costs down the line.
In particularly she notes the rate of learning disabilities in the criminal justice system – while one in 10 Canadians have a learning disability, nearly a quarter of the prison population has some form of learning disabilities, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba.
“There’s a reason why that number is so high,” she says. “It’s directly reflective of what we don’t do in our schools. So we’re fighting for lives, here.”