Public board report finds drop overall
By Joanne Laucius, The Ottawa CitizenDecember 16, 2009
Ottawa’s public schools are suspending a growing number of students with special needs from autism to learning disabilities, according to a newly released report obtained by the Citizen.
The report, which will be discussed tonight by the board of education’s Special Education Advisory Committee, shows that at the same time overall suspensions have dropped almost 38 per cent over the past five years.
But it is the increase related to the suspension of children with special needs that is raising concern.
“The kids who need help the most are the ones getting suspended,” said Dale Ford, a former special education resources teacher who acts as an advocate for the families of suspended children.
The number of suspensions among special needs students went up from 1,210 in 2006-2007 to 1,893 in 2008-2009, and represented 16 per cent of the 11,601 students who had special needs. That includes 698 students with behavioural issues; 5,185 that have an identified learning disability; 2,770 gifted students; 698 diagnosed with autism and 775 with mild intellectual disabilities.
The total number of suspensions dropped by 2,063 in the 2008-2009 academic year compared to the previous year, according to the report delivered to the Ottawa public board’s education committee.
Overall, there were 5,179 suspensions last year out of 72,565 students, representing just more than seven per cent of the total school population. That’s 32-per-cent fewer suspensions at the elementary level and more than 24-per-cent fewer suspensions in high schools compared to the previous year.
“It (the suspension of special needs children) concerns me. We really need to take a close look at students with exceptionalities,” said Dr. Petra Duschner, manager of safe schools for the school board.
Within the special-needs category, there are different suspension rates. Between 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, suspensions for students with mild intellectual disabilities increased from 18 to 33 per cent. But suspensions for students with autism were down from 7.6 per cent to 7.1 per cent.
“We really need to look at the specific cases and see what we can do to support these students effectively,” said Duschner.
Suspension rates were expected to drop after changes were made to the Safe Schools Act two years ago. Before, principals had a menu of infractions that would result in suspensions. Now, they have more latitude to choose in-school interventions instead.
Mitigating factors include the student’s inability to control behaviour or understand consequences, as well as the risks the student presents to others. If the student has an individualized learning plan, administrators also have to consider if the suspension will worsen the student’s conduct.
Duschner said any diagnosis is a mitigating factor when decisions are made, but educators are still familiarizing themselves with changes to the law.
Most suspensions are for one or two days, she said. “Time away can be good for a child.”
Nancy Gibson, who provides direction and support for the families of autistic children at the Ottawa chapter of Autism Ontario, said she is increasingly getting calls from parents who are asked if their child can take some time off school without formally being suspended. Other students are being asked to reduce the number of hours they spend in school.
Ford has about 50 clients now, all students with special needs.
“What I am seeing is basically children being suspended for being autistic,” said Ford. “They’re continuing to suspend and expel children for disability behaviour.”
Trustee Pam FitzGerald has heard complaints from parents whose children are suspended after they spiral into a meltdown.
While the number of education assistants hasn’t changed, demand has increased. For example, the number of students with autism has jumped from 394 students to 698 in just one year, an increase of over 77 per cent.
“We’re going to have more and more kids with autism in schools,” said FitzGerald. “It’s just growing in leaps and bounds and no one knows why.”
Meanwhile, there are fewer congregated classes, so the education assistants spend only a few minutes in each classroom before moving on to the next, said FitzGerald.
“A lot of kids have something that triggers them. An EA who knows that child can see it coming and whisk the child into a quiet corner.”
Linda Barbetta, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton, has noticed the numbers. There were 890 suspensions of students with learning disabilities, up from 672 the previous year.
“If you’re not successful at school, it manifests in anxiety, frustration and inattention,” said Barbetta. “When you have a number that spikes, you have to look at what you stopped doing and what you can do. And look at the schools that keep their numbers down.”
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