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B.C. students with complex care needs increasingly excluded from school activities, report finds

Exclusion of students with complex needs is on the rise, according to a new report from the BCEdAccess Society. (CBC - image credit)
Exclusion of students with complex needs is on the rise, according to a new report from the BCEdAccess Society. (CBC - image credit)

Sonja Kennedy's teenage daughter has care needs that Kennedy says cause her to be excluded from school, and while her child's needs are complex, Kennedy says the solution doesn't have to be.

The 16-year-old attends school on southern Vancouver Island and has both autism and a rare genetic condition that means she must be fed the majority of her nutrients through a gastronomy feeding tube.

According to Kennedy, amending government policy and training more education assistants would enable her daughter, who loves school, to attend more often.

Kennedy told CBC's The Early Edition that a Ministry of Health policy was relayed to her less than a month before the 2023 school year that all tube-fed kids have to be fed formula from a machine despite this not being part of her daughter's diet.

"The government or state or Ministry of Health doesn't have the right to dictate what goes into my child's body at school," said Kennedy.

She also said there are not enough education assistants (EA) trained to work with tube-fed children, meaning her daughter has to miss school when there is no EA available.

"The absences have gone up, and so if nobody is there to hydrate or feed my child, my child can't have her education. She can't attend school, and so there have been multiple occasions where she hasn't been able to attend."

Exclusion of students like Kennedy's daughter is on the rise, according to a new report from BCEdAccess Society, a registered non-profit that advocates for children with complex needs.

A student in a wheelchair in an elementary school classroom.
A student in a wheelchair in an elementary school classroom.

Supporters of children with complex care needs say proper training and education for school staff are essential. (Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

The report looks at incidents of exclusion reported by parents of students with disabilities — anything from having a shortened school day to not having inclusive lessons to not being invited on field trips.

The data was collected from 406 respondents (primarily parents) and 70 students who participated in a survey. The society found that during the 2022/2023 school year, there were 5,973 incidents, up from 4,760 in 2021/2022.

Tracy Humphreys, the society's executive director, said a shortage of education assistants across B.C. is contributing greatly to the problem.

"We have a crisis in this system, and have for several years, around education assistant shortages in some districts. There's 50-a-day that are not attending, so they call it a failure to fill," Humphreys said.

She said the spike in exclusions has been concerning and that incidents are increasing in kindergarten, which is an important development time for kids. Humphrey also said while it is not increasing, there has been no improvement in the rates of restraint and seclusion — meaning the physical restraint and isolation of children.

She said these actions are usually because a child is exhibiting unwanted behaviour because of a reaction to their environment.

"It's really traumatic on kids. It can create lasting issues for their self-esteem, their mental health [and] impact the family. There's a lot of concerns around it, and as a practice, we feel it shouldn't be happening."

Education needed: advocates

Mark Smeets, dad to a nine-year-old son with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism and a board member with the ADHD Advocacy Society of B.C., said he's had to make an effort as a parent to ensure his son is included in activities at school.

"A lot of people ... in general don't understand what ADHD is," he said.

"A lot of the time is spent educating not only yourself as a parent ... but you're teaching that experience to others, and that is where the, I think, the biggest barriers lie. They lie in teachers not knowing and school districts too, for that matter not knowing about sensory triggers or environmental triggers."

Smeets added that policies should be made by people with lived experience.

Humphreys said proper training is key to preventing situations of exclusion, adding that training is inconsistent — some EA programs are three weeks long, while others are two years.

In an emailed statement to CBC, the Ministry of Education said that the number of classrooms with an education assistant in them has increased 34 per cent since 2017, adding that since 2017 there has been an 80 per cent increase in funding for inclusive supports and services.

The ministry said it has funded 70 teacher education spaces focusing on inclusive education.

"All students should feel safe, welcome and included in B.C. schools and should have access to a learning environment where they can achieve their full potential," Education Minister Rachna Singh said. "I know, though, that some students continue to experience barriers to full participation in our schools, and I appreciate the efforts of parents and advocates to make things better."

Engagement portal

On Friday, the province announced an online engagement portal where people can share ideas about improving services for children and youth with complex needs.

The ideas will be shared later on the government's engagement website. The portal will be open until Dec. 1, 2024.

"The Province has been directly engaging rights and titleholders through virtual sessions, as well as providing grant funding to First Nations to lead engagements," the Ministry of Children and Family Development said in a statement.

"Virtual sessions were held in spring and summer this year, with more beginning this fall. Engagement sessions led by community partners, including Inclusion B.C., the Family Support Institute and the B.C. Association of Friendship Centres, have also been ongoing."