Inclusion advocates irked by Catholic school plan for aggressive students
Published on: March 6, 2017 | Last Updated: March 6, 2017 6:00 AM MST
Edmonton Catholic Schools' decision to congregate students with severe behavioural problems at one school is a troubling step backward, inclusion advocates say. PERRY MAH / PERRY MAH/EDMONTON SUN/POSTMEDIA
Edmonton Catholic Schools’ decision to congregate students with severe behavioural problems at one school is a troubling step backward, inclusion advocates say.
The Catholic school district’s plan to congregate programs for students with substantial behavioural problems and severe autism at the St. Margaret school building is an optional offering each year for 80 to 100 Grade 1 to 9 students who aren’t functioning well in a typical classroom, said Corine Gannon, assistant superintendent of learning services innovation.
“It’s very distressing,” said Bruce Uditsky, chief executive officer of Inclusion Alberta, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities. “The direction of progress universally, internationally, has been to expand inclusion.”
Gannon said, “It’s not that old-fashioned kind of segregation at all.”
On Tuesday, the school board voted unanimously to approve an administrative change that would allow the district to set up the new alternative program at St. Margaret, on 98 Street and 71 Avenue in Hazeldean. Gannon can’t remember the last time the district had a designated school for students needing special supports.
Existing programs for students with severe behavioural challenges and severe autism at five other district schools will move to St. Margaret School next fall. There, a team of specialized teachers, psychologists, mental health therapists and behavioural analysts will work to determine the causes of aggression or outbursts, with students learning in smaller groups, Gannon said.
The school will be another choice for families looking for options after all attempts to accommodate a student in their community school have faltered, Gannon said. They’ll attend for an estimated eight to 12 weeks before returning to their original school, she said.
One of the programs for elementary students with severe autism, the Genesis Inclusive Support Transition, has substantially improved how well children get along with their peers and cope with life in a typical classroom, she said.
Edmonton Public Schools also has specialized programs for students with behavioural issues. The Aspen program is just for students with severe emotional problems, and the Interactions program hosts approximately 400 students with autism in about 30 public district schools.
Unable to accommodate all students with severe aggression now, the Catholic district refers some students to private schools, Gannon said.
Catholic school trustees, who have frequently said some parents are dissatisfied with the support available for special education, said they were happy to see the St. Margaret program coming together.
However, Uditsky said the district is overselling the benefits of congregating students in a building away from their more typical classmates.
“It’s an absolutely archaic and backwards decision that conflicts with all the research on what’s best for children and their education,” he said.
Although such a program may give students access to more specialists, it doesn’t make up for what children lose when they are separated from friends and classmates in their community, he said.
Congregating and segregating groups has historically led to more opportunities for abuse and neglect of vulnerable people, he said.
Although administrators may intend to move students back to community schools, those transitions back sometimes become overwhelming for children, Uditsky said.
Provincial education standards say school districts must first attempt to place special needs students in typical classrooms before considering segregation.
A 2009 review found Alberta schools were too often separating children with special needs from mainstream classes, prompting then education minister Dave Hancock to call for more integration.
In 2010, the Catholic school district announced students with mild to moderate disabilities would no longer be admitted to segregated programs.
Isolated and stigmatized
Caitlin Wray, whose 13-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, said her child has attended both public and Catholic schools in Edmonton. When he was younger, his behavioural problems were more severe, and exacerbated by loud sounds, bright lights, touches and smells.
She has found schools are often quick to suggest segregation options when a child has trouble fitting in with a class, rather than bringing in experts who can help modify the environment. Being removed can make children feel isolated, she said.
Typical students also lose out when children with disabilities are missing from classes, she said.
Although she has noted some improvements, Autism Edmonton’s executive director Carole Anne Patenaude said schools can still improve their capacity to include students on the autism spectrum.
“We also know that the role of parents with the schools, the information shared with parents by the school and their involvement in the planning is oftentimes a major frustration for parents,” Patenaude said in an email.
Students who lack the right support in a typical classroom can feel just as isolated and stigmatized as children in a segregated program, she said.
Edmonton Catholic’s Gannon said students’ educational assistants will travel with them to St. Margaret school. Some students may spend part of their day at their community school or in other programs, like a sports academy, which will help them maintain their connections to friends and teachers, she said.
Initially a K-6 school, St. Margaret closed in 1983. The building currently hosts elementary students from J. H. Picard School, who have been displaced by renovations.