Budget cuts to special needs support staff a hit to Toronto’s most vulnerable students

Budget cuts to special needs support staff a hit to Toronto’s most vulnerable students

Toronto’s Georgina Rayner has been trying to retire for years now.

At 67, she’s successfully raised her own two kids, both of them with special needs, and seen them go on to achieve professional and personal milestones.

For 30 years, she’s used her own experience to advocate on behalf other parents whose kids are in danger of falling through the cracks in the education system.

Trouble is, every time Rayner tries to step away from her unpaid work, she hears from another desperate family in need of help and she just can’t stop herself from getting back up on the soapbox and fighting for change.

“Every child has the right to learn and to work and become something,” she told Yahoo Canada News. “It really irks me, because it seems like (special needs programming) always becomes the whipping post for all the budget cuts.”

Her comments come as Toronto’s school trustees axe 22.5 support staff positions affecting those who work with special-needs students. The cuts come after the province slashed special-education funding last year, a move that left Toronto’s budget $7.3 million short this year, according to the Toronto Star.

The cash shortfall was expected to grow to $22.3 million over the next three years, the newspaper reported.

The full impact of the budget decision has yet to be measured, but parents of special-needs children are bracing for the worst.

Heidi Bernhardt, president and executive director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada, said finding adequate special needs support for public school kids is already a huge problem for many parents across the country. But, she said, the problem has been particularly acute in Toronto. “The parents I hear from are quite drained, devastated, and frustrated. A lot of times they’re at the ends of their ropes and a lot of times they are frustrated because they can’t even get over the first hurdle – that is, (the school board) won’t recognize that their child is struggling and in need of special assistance,” she said.

Bernhardt said an estimated five per cent of school-age children have ADHD, a disorder that, among other symptoms, disrupts a child’s ability to focus and process lists of instructions. Without special instruction, the child sits there, frozen.

“These kids may be very, very bright, they just can’t get their work done,” Bernhardt said.

Katharine Buchan, education materials coordinator with Autism Ontario, said qualified support staff and teachers are more vital than ever to the success of the estimated 17,500 school-age children with autism in the province.

While total enrollment figures may be decreasing in the Toronto school district, the number of children with autism has more than doubled between 2007 and 2014, Buchan said.

‘We see a lot of horror stories’

With the right support between teaching staff and parents, she said those students can have friends, can go on to post-secondary education and find meaningful employment. Recent headlines, though, offer a chilling glimpse of what can happen when that support isn’t available.

In Ottawa, a nine-year-old boy with autism was allegedly handcuffed at his elementary school to control what police said was a “violent outburst.”

And in Toronto, a family has launched a $16 million lawsuit against the Peel District school board after learning their son was allegedly locked in so-called “isolation rooms” as punishment for misbehaviour.

“We see a lot of horror stories right now,” Buchan said.

Rayner said school boards need to rethink their priorities when it comes to educating children. She’s seen special-needs funding rise and fall over the years, but is worried about the direction the current board is taking.

“It’s like they’re saying, ‘We can cut the vulnerable because they don’t have any ability to fight it off,’” she said.

Though the cuts may suggest otherwise, Toronto trustees aren’t denying the significant need for special assistance.

City staff had recommended the board to chop 33.5 support positions in order to balance the budget. Trustees, instead, opted to lose 22.5 and find savings elsewhere