Patti Bacchus: The culture problem undermining special education

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      CTV news anchor Tamara Taggart posted a passionate plea on Facebook this week asking: “Can we please stop blaming and start repairing? There are thousands of students not getting what they need at school and parents who are broken because no one is listening. There is no transparency, these are children—let's put the bureaucracy aside and act like we have hearts so big they can't fit in our chests. These children are our future, our treasures.”

      Taggart has three kids, and the eldest—Beckett—has Down syndrome. She knows firsthand what’s it’s like to be a parent of a student with special needs trying to navigate the public-school system. She’s clearly frustrated and she’s not alone. Not by a longshot.

      Her post included a photo of a girl sitting alone at a table in a school library.

      “This is not inclusion”

      “My friend sent me this photo of her child,” Taggart wrote in the post

      “Her child's class has been in the library since the beginning of the year, 11 weeks ago. The other students were on the carpet engaged in an activity with the teacher, this child was at the desk with crayons all on her own. My friend's daughter has autism and there hasn't been any consistent support at all this year. Like most parents I know, my friend wants her children to have a meaningful experience at school, which means being included. Putting a kid at a table with crayons while the other students are engaged in an activity is not inclusion. Putting five kids with disabilities in the physio room at lunch with one [student support worker] while all the other students are outside playing, is not inclusion.”

      The post was shared widely and drew hundreds of comments, which doesn’t surprise me. Taggart is a popular, well-known media figure with a large following, and her passionate plea clearly resonated with a lot of parents and educators. I often heard similar stories and calls for action during my eight years as a school trustee. I still do, and the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.

      Too many parents run into problems communicating with schools. They can’t get answers to questions; they’re brushed off or given incorrect information, leaving them feeling what one described to me this week as “frantic, paranoid, and scared”. There’s little transparency on how decisions are made and how staffing is allocated, and that can erode trust between school administrators and parents.

      The word nightmare comes up again and again in conversations with parents of students with special needs talking about their challenges with the school system. Whether it’s getting timely assessments or supports, high teacher and support-worker turnover, inadequate or ignored safety plans, dismissive or intimidating responses from administrators, parents being called at work to pick up kids because there’s not enough staff, and students languishing in district “life skills” classes without meaningful instruction. On and on it goes.

      Don’t get me wrong: teachers, support workers, and many administrators want inclusion to work and most go above and beyond for students. I’ve heard from several this week in response to a query I put out on Twitter. They’re frustrated and worried too. Many feel as abandoned, frustrated, and unsupported as parents do. When I was a trustee, I’d visit schools and stop by staff rooms at recess and lunch. Teachers and support workers would be in tears telling me about what was going on in their complex and often-crowded classrooms. They couldn’t give the kids everything they needed and they knew it. It broke their hearts and exhausted them.

      Funding is a key part of the problem, but not all of it

      There’s been lots of progress in public education, especially when it comes to embracing and celebrating student diversity. Dedicated teachers, support workers, administrators, and trustees put their hearts and souls into their work to try to ensure every kid can thrive at school—and many kids with special needs do just fine. Then what’s gone wrong for the rest?

      There’s no question funding—or lack thereof—has been a major factor. The B.C. Liberals’ expensive and protracted legal battle with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and its refusal to adequately fund school boards stressed the system and forced school boards to make decisions that led to rationing and stretching special-education staffing.

      It led to cuts to specialist teaching positions, resulting in piecemeal resource-teacher jobs that experienced special-education teachers knew were unmanageable, so they wouldn’t take them—leaving the jobs to inexperienced teachers who were left with large, complex caseloads they weren’t equipped to serve.

      Corners got cut and service gaps widened and true inclusion was treated as a goal but not necessarily a requirement. Worried parents watching their kids struggle with insufficient support—often leading to safety fears and spiking anxiety and behaviour issues—pushed schools to do more and explain why their kids weren’t getting the support and opportunities they needed and deserved.

      We know it’s wrong to discriminate, so why do we still accept it?

      There’s a teacher shortage, and there are too few substitutes to cover staff absences. Yet parents aren’t asked to pick up their kids because there isn’t a substitute for the Grade 3 class that day. That would be unacceptable, of course, and there would be a huge public outcry. Schools manage to find someone to cover the class.

      But it happens with special-needs kids with alarming frequency. The B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils—the umbrella group that represents public-school parent groups—recently released survey results showing that hundreds of students with special needs are regularly being sent home because of staff shortages.

      This and the issues Taggart posted about are symptoms of a cultural problem that persists despite strong policies and general support for inclusion. One parent described it to me this week as a system that makes them feel like schools are doing them special, charitable favours by accommodating their child’s needs and that they’re made to feel they should be grateful for what they’re getting and not ask questions or push for more.

      Taggart’s  “Can we please stop blaming and start repairing?” plea speaks for many

      The repairing Taggart and so many parents are pleading for needs to start now. Kids can’t wait.

      Funding is the first step in repairing the problems, and thanks to the BCTF court victory and the new B.C. NDP government, there’s a lot more of that available.  Districts are straining to fill vacant jobs, and it will take time and a focused effort to ensure there’s an adequate supply of qualified teachers and support workers. The latter have been in short supply for years, and turnover is high, primarily due to low wages and limited hours of work. Many support workers take on second jobs, and districts can’t hire and keep enough of them to fill all their vacancies, especially “employee on call” positions to cover staff absences. That needs to be addressed along with more training opportunities.

      The culture also needs to change, and there needs to be transparency and accountability from school boards and district and school administrators. The message needs to be that meaningful inclusion for students with special needs isn’t optional and only provided on days that it’s convenient. It’s mandatory and a priority. Every day.

      BCTF president Glen Hansman hit the nail on the head with a tweet this week: “Some school districts are treating special education as a dispensable luxury. It needs to stop, and political direction needs to be given by trustees and the province to ensure it does stop.”

      He’s right. The culture change needs to start at the top with B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming giving clear direction to school boards that they’re accountable for ensuring all students’ needs are being appropriately met and that parents have to be meaningfully and respectfully included in decisions about their kids.

      Trustees need to tell their managers it’s not acceptable to pull special-education resource teachers from the students they support to cover classes when there’re no substitutes available. That it’s not okay to send a student with special needs home early because a support worker is away, any more than it would be to dismiss an entire class because their teacher is ill. Trustees need to direct principals to put plans in place to prepare for staff absences and sending kids with special needs home can’t be the plan.

      Nor can leaving them in a corner with crayons while the rest of the class engages in a group activity.

      Trustees need to advocate for the funding their districts need to deliver the right services. Then they must demand accountability from their senior managers and school administrators for how that funding is used. Principals need to know that meaningful instruction and social inclusion must be provided every day to all students in accordance with their individual education plans.

      System needs to be student-centred and not “convenient-to-the-school”-centred

      School boards need to put mechanisms in place so parents who are running into problems and resistance at the school level can access help without fear of retribution. The system needs to be truly student-centred and not “convenient-to-the-school”-centred. Teachers and support workers need ongoing training opportunities to have the skills they need to work in inclusive education settings where students with special needs aren’t treated like charity cases.

      If schools don’t have the staffing or training they need to meet the needs of their students, they need to say so and let parents know too so they can help be part of the solution.

      The pervasive “circle the wagons” mentality—where school districts reflexively back up administrators who come into conflict with parents—needs to end and parents need to be consistently treated as respected partners in their kids’ education. No child should be left alone with crayons while the rest of the class engages in a group activity. Neither should they be sent home.

      Start listening to parents instead of breaking them. Start treating kids with special needs like what Taggart calls them: “our future, our treasures.” 

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.