Media Coverage Further Highlights the Fact that the Ford Government has Failed to set Mandatory Provincial Standards on the Use and Monitoring of Isolation Rooms and Sensory Rooms in Publicly Funded Schools

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities Website: https://www.aodaalliance.org
Email: aodafeedback@gmail.com
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July 9, 2024

SUMMARY

On June 17, 2024, the influential news publication The Trillium published an impressive article, set out below by reporter Sneh Dugga, that further shows the pressing need for the Ford Government to set mandatory provincial rules on when and how a school board can place any students in an isolation room or sensory room in a school in this province. The news report shows that in just a handful of school boards, practices vary widely and data on their use is too often not collected.

Since 16-year-old Landyn Ferris, a student with disabilities, died in such a room in a Trenton-area high school in May, the media, the opposition at Queen’s Park, and advocacy organizations such as the AODA Alliance and the Ontario Autism Coalition (both quoted in this article) have continued to focus public attention on this issue. It is just one illustration of the harm to hundreds of thousands of Ontario students with disabilities that is caused by the Ford Government’s failure to enact the much-needed Education Accessibility Standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. On January 28, 2022, a full 893 days ago, The Government received a detailed report from the Government-appointed K-12 Education Standards Development Committee. It provided comprehensive recommendations on what the Education Accessibility Standard should include, including provisions regarding the use of isolation rooms.

This issue is not going away. Stay tuned!

What You Can Do to Help

Write Ontario’s Minister of Education Todd smith. Tell him that the Ontario Government should now enact a strong and effective Education Accessibility Standard under the AODA.

Send us your feedback. Write us at aodafeedback@gmail.com

Learn more by watching these videos:

* The June 4, 2024 Queen’s Park news conference, including NDP MPPs and speakers from the AODA Alliance and Ontario Autism Coalition.
* AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s talk on what the Education Accessibility Standard should include for K-12 students.

Learn more about the AODA Alliance’s 15 year long battle to win enactment of a strong Education Accessibility Standard by visiting the AODA Alliance website’s education page.

MORE DETAILS

The Trillium June 17, 2024

Originally posted at www.thetrillium.ca

Teen’s death sparks renewed calls for provincial standards for sensory, isolation rooms
The Trillium spoke with advocates about what these rooms are and why they’re different. We also reached out to school boards to ask what they call these rooms and how they use them

Sneh Dugga
Jun 17, 2024

Advocates and the NDP speak in support of more special education supports following the death of a 16-year-old boy in May 2024.

In the wake of the tragic death of a 16-year-old at a high school in Trenton last month, advocates have been calling for provincial standards on the use of “sensory” and “isolation” rooms in schools.

Currently, any policies around the use of such rooms are left to school boards to develop, but advocates say this is a problem.

The government and most boards contacted by The Trillium wouldn’t say whether they keep or track data on the use of these rooms.

A “sensory room” is meant to provide a calming space where a student can use equipment for gross motor and sensory needs, according to school boards. Some said they don’t use or allow “isolation” rooms, which lack that equipment.

According to one advocate, language matters because while “sensory” rooms are “a positive thing” that students often look forward to, “isolation” rooms are “basically like a jail cell.”

Concerns over the use of these rooms and the difference between them have been raised since the death of Landyn Ferris last month.

Ferris, 16, was a student at Trenton High School and had Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. He was found without vital signs at the end of the school day on May 14, “unattended in a sensory room,” Josh Nisker, founding partner of Beyond Law and a lawyer representing Ferris’s family, told The Trillium on June 4. One of the triggers for his seizures was sleep, so his mother, Brenda Davis, would sleep in the same room as him every night to “care for him and protect him.”

Ferris’ family is planning to launch a civil lawsuit following the boy’s death.

Following a press conference at Queen’s Park on June 4, where advocates called on the government to take action to ensure this didn’t happen again, a photo circulated on social media after it was posted by CityNews of the room where Ferris was allegedly found, with many users saying it looked like an “isolation” room rather than a “sensory” room.

Nisker provided The Trillium with a copy of the photo and said that while he’s not sure if the term “sensory room” originated from the school board as he hasn’t been provided with any information yet on the “nature of the room,” that was the language referred to him when he started looking into the case.

Nisker said he’s aware there are public concerns about the lack of provincial standards for the use of these types of rooms and he hopes “positive change results from this awful tragedy,” but his focus is on how the room was used.

“To me it’s perhaps just a question of semantics do you call it one thing or the other?” he said. “But ultimately, the issue here, from our perspective, is that this boy was left alone and he had a pre-existing medical condition that rendered him vulnerable and constant supervision was necessary to ensure his safety. So whether it was an isolation room or a sensory room or any other room, at this stage, from my perspective, it matters less than what was done to protect him.”

Nisker said he wants to see what the school board’s policy was on the use of this room.
Asked about the room Ferris was found in and the photo being circulated, Kerry Donnell, a spokesperson for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board, said it is likely a photo of one of the board’s sensory rooms.

“However we did not take the photo,” Donnell said. “Sensory rooms may be empty, and objects may be taken into the space depending on programming needs.”

Donnell said the board has “120 sensory rooms and multi-purpose spaces” at its 39 schools and that they’re “designed to support individual students based on their sensory and self-regulation needs” and that they are “adaptable.”

But the board wouldn’t say what its protocols are around the use of such rooms.

The Trillium contacted several school boards to ask if they use “sensory” or “isolation” rooms, what their purpose is, the policy around their use and whether the board collects data on their use.

Most of the other schools boards contacted did not say whether or not they collect data on the use of the rooms they do use.

However, the Rainbow District School Board, which has “Snoezelen rooms” in a small number of schools, said it does not collect data on this.

“These rooms are another resource available to students who may benefit from a sensory space. The sensory activities are part of the program delivered to students, for instance, an intensive support program, and are supervised by staff,” said spokesperson Nicole Charette, adding that the rooms usually have calming music, nature pictures, bean bag chairs and more.
Bruce Campbell, a spokesperson for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said they use sensory rooms on a “limited basis” and that “gross motor rooms” are more common. The latter are used when occupational therapists or physiotherapists come to the school to work with children and have equipment that the therapists prescribe for the students.

The Toronto District School Board said it uses “calming rooms” or spaces that are either within classrooms or a nearby room.

“We emphasize the use of strategies, which can include the use of calming spaces in classrooms (often a couch or areas with cushions),” said spokesperson Ryan Bird, adding that there would be similar furniture in a separate room as well.

“Students would choose to go into a calming space. However, an adult may also verbally suggest it or use a visual prompt. The goal is for the student to learn to proactively choose the calming space. Of course, supervision and safety are always paramount, student needs and strategies are documented in Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and parents are consulted,” he said.

Some boards like the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board said it has “sensory rooms” in most schools, but that it’s doesn’t allow “seclusion/isolation” rooms.

“If a student with special education needs exhibits violent behaviour, staff trained in Behaviour Management Systems (BMS) will intervene to assist with de-escalation, in accordance with the student’s safety plan,” said spokesperson Danielle Dupuis.

Students access the sensory rooms individually or in groups with staff and on a scheduled basis depending on their need, Dupuis added.

But the Avon Maitland District School Board said it includes sensory equipment or other elements in classrooms and spaces.

“Our board provides support services in an inclusive setting and we do not have isolation/seclusion rooms,” the board said.

Cory Wilkins of the Durham District School Board said they have different spaces including sensory rooms for student use.

“The purpose of these rooms is varied: they may provide a calming environment, serve as individual instruction or work areas, or be equipped as sensory spaces to meet specific student needs,” said Wilkins. “The use of these rooms is guided by procedures designed to ensure the dignity and safety of students.”

David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance, said there are several questions that need to be addressed through provincial policy when it comes to the use of these rooms including if and where these rooms should exist, what they can be used for, whether notification or consent is required from parents, whether approval to use one of these rooms is required, when parents should be told about the use of them and what data should be collected.

He has accused the government of “sitting on” recommendations from a K-12 Education Standards Development Committee report that the province posted to its website a few years ago. The recommendations were meant to promote accessibility and safety for students with disabilities.

Lepofsky, who was on the committee, said one of its calls was for the provincial government to provide policy direction to all school boards on “when, how and with what safeguards an isolation room or sensory room can be used, and a student with a disability left there.”
Kate Dudley-Logue, vice-president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, echoed Lepofsky’s call, saying the ministry should develop provincial policies around the use of any rooms used for special needs students.

“Special education is like the wild, wild west out there,” she said, adding that it’s problematic that children with similar needs could have “vastly different” experiences between school boards.

She said the room that Ferris was allegedly found in is “most definitely not a sensory room” and what she would refer to as a “seclusion room.”

The latter, she said, would generally be empty rooms with mats on the walls and floors and be used to “de-escalate a child who was in crisis, who might be of danger to themselves or to others.”

She said these became “frowned upon” eight to 10 years ago, and while some schools have said they’ve “abolished” the use of them, they still exist, though some refer to them as sensory or calm-down rooms.

“I think it’s appropriate to say that there likely is a need for those rooms,” Dudley-Logue said, though she said they should be used as a “last resort” and never as a form of punishment. “What there is also a need for is to be some policies in place on when those rooms are used, that nobody should ever be left alone in those rooms … not only because of a possible safety issue, but because it’s traumatizing.”

Dudley-Logue said she went to pick up her son last year, who was in Grade 4 at the time, from school and found he had been brought to a room she described as a “vacant utility closet with mats on the floor and an exercise bike in the corner.”

She said sensory rooms, on the other hand, provide kids with “body breaks” so they can get needed sensory input. They would normally have equipment such as trampolines, exercise bikes, yoga balls, lights or other objects, she said.

Dudley-Logue said while “sensory” rooms give students a break or allow for their learning to be incorporated into a routine in those rooms, “isolation” rooms are different.

“If you hear that your child is in a sensory room, you’re probably not likely to complain about that too much, whereas a family would likely take great issue to their kid being thrown into a room that, let’s face it, is basically like a jail cell,” she said.

Asked on June 4 about the call for provincial standards for the use of these rooms, former education minister Stephen Lecce would not commit to putting such policies in place.

“School boards are required to have a protocol in place, we expect them to do so recognizing that we provide training to staff in our schools, (educational assistants), behavioural experts, mental health workers, special education teachers every single year to ensure they are well-positioned to support these kids and keep them safe,” he said.