Parents battle for son’s right to autism services in school

TheStar.com – News/GTA – Groundbreaking human rights case could pave the way to school boards providing better supports for the 20,000 autistic students in Ontario.
April 7, 2017.   By

Five-year-old Jack Skrt kneels on the playroom floor at his Mississauga home, poring over a dog-eared book of street maps. His face lights up as he spots a cul-de-sac and chirps “I see one!”

Jack, who has autism, is captivated by “no exit” streets and signs. He loves zooming his trains around their wooden track and rhymes off the nine characters in his favourite storybook at an auctioneer’s pace.

He eagerly prints a visitor’s name on his chalk board, first name and last initial, a skill he mastered long before starting kindergarten, which he attends only two days a week at St. Timothy Elementary School.

Jack spends the other three days at a private autism treatment centre paid for by his parents, who say it’s the only way he can get the applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy he needs to help him learn effectively and function in the classroom.

The situation has put the little boy in the middle of a groundbreaking human rights case launched by his parents, Mike and Beth Skrt, which goes before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal next month.

If successful, it could pave the way to school boards providing better supports for the 20,000 autistic students in Ontario.

“If we can set this precedent it’s huge, not only for Jack, but all the other kids coming after him,” says Beth, who has been pushing for more ABA supports in Jack’s classroom for two years, since six months before he entered junior kindergarten in September 2015.

The Skrts argue the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board is violating Jack’s rights by failing to provide him with accommodations he is legally entitled to receive as a result of his disability.

“This amounts to discrimination,” says the application, which is seeking a tribunal order requiring Ontario school boards to ensure ABA is available to students with autism.

ABA, the most common and tested autism treatment, is a behavioural approach that uses repetition and positive reinforcement to teach children tasks by breaking them into small, measurable steps, which are then monitored, recorded and tracked to measure progress.

Tasks could include asking for a toy, putting on a snowsuit for recess, or sitting on the carpet for story time. The goal is to help them become fluent in daily skills, and eventually apply the learning tools to new tasks.

“Having ABA support in school would allow Jack to both attend school and have the disability-related supports he needs to thrive,” says the application.

Without it, the Skrts say they cannot risk pulling their son out of private therapy and losing the gains he has made — even though the current situation is harmful to Jack, “who thrives best when there is consistency in his day-to-day routine,” and belongs in school full-time with other kids his age.

They are also seeking “special damages” to cover the costs of Jack’s ABA since he enrolled in school. The amount is still to be determined.

Officials at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing student confidentiality.

But in its written response to the tribunal, the board denies discriminating against Jack and says it welcomes him to attend school five days a week.

“Jack has not suffered any burden or disadvantage nor has he been denied the benefit of educational services on the basis of disability,” says the response.

“The board has and will continue to provide Jack with the accommodations he requires to be successful in school and reach his academic potential.”

The Skrts also believe educational assistants who work with autistic students — known as educational resource workers at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board — should be trained by qualified ABA professionals to deliver it. They are requesting a remedy that would require workers at St. Timothy to commence training immediately. Until then, they are requesting that one of Jack’s therapists be permitted to accompany him to school.

But the board argues that allowing an outside therapist in the classroom would breach its collective agreements with teachers and support staff, and is contrary to the province’s Education Act.

Launching the human rights case “was just the right thing to do,” says Beth Skrt during an interview in her family room, while Jack sits at the computer quietly searching for dead ends on Google Street View and Emily, 2, curls up for a nap on her dad’s lap.

“This is a violation of Jack’s rights,” says Beth. “I wanted change. We had to do it.”

The case comes at a time when the rights of students with disabilities and the duty of school boards to support them has moved to the forefront of education in Ontario and elsewhere.

The Skrts’ application cites a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2012, which found a British Columbia school board discriminated against student Jeffrey Moore by failing to provide him with accommodations he needed as a result of his dyslexia.

The unanimous ruling concluded special education “is not a dispensable luxury” and upheld an earlier decision that the board reimburse Moore’s family for the costs of the private school he attended in order to access those supports.

Last month, a parallel note was sounded in the United States, where disabled students who aren’t appropriately supported by public schools can be reimbursed for private school fees. A Supreme Court ruling involving a Colorado student with autism raised the bar on the standard of education the public system must provide to students with disabilities.

In Ontario, parents typically must fight hard to get children the accommodations they are legally entitled to, as cash-strapped boards are unable to meet the demand for special education services.

In a 2015 survey by the advocacy and research group People for Education, 79 per cent of school boards reported spending more on special ed than they receive from the province each year.

In the meantime, some Ontario boards have quietly reached settlements with families who take legal action, resulting in some picking up tabs for private school tuition and others starting to hire outside ABA professionals, says human rights lawyer David Baker, founder of Bakerlaw in Toronto, who is handling the Skrts’ case.

“People should, if this case is successful, be looking to their school boards for this kind of support for their children going forward, rather than selling their homes and emptying their RRSPs in order to give the child what the child should get as part of a free public education,” says Baker.

He cites other jurisdictions including some U.S. states where ABA is built into public school programs so families “don’t have to choose between ABA and education.”

Jack’s case is sure to be watched closely by Ontario autism advocates, who have long been fighting for more resources, training and consistent standards in schools at a time when autism rates are climbing.

This week the Ontario Autism Coalition released a sweeping report that calls on Education Minister Mitzie Hunter to revamp special education funding and put mandatory special ed training in place at teachers’ college. Another key recommendation was providing autistic students with ABA at the intensity they need and determined by a trained professional.

The report was later endorsed by the two major unions representing Ontario’s elementary and secondary school teachers.

For students like Jack, the right level of support could mean the difference between thriving and floundering in school,” says Tracie Lindblad, clinical director at Monarch House in Oakville, where he has been receiving intensive ABA since the fall of 2014.

“Jack has the ability to go to college, go to university. He could get there, he just needs the right kind of teaching,” she says.

The fact he is a happy child, has peers who love him and is not aggressive or disruptive can mask his “significant difficulties” in mastering new skills and playing with other students, she added.

“He’s the right kind of kid to have in a classroom program,” Lindblad says. But without appropriate support, which includes close monitoring of his progress to see whether he is learning, mastering and retaining new skills, “he will fall through the cracks.”

The issue at the centre of the Skrt case isn’t whether ABA approaches should be provided in classrooms, but at what level of intensity and by whom.

The Ministry of Education already requires schools to provide ABA methods “where appropriate,” though critics say the policy leaves too much room for interpretation and has led to inconsistency across the province.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic board follows ministry policy and incorporates ABA into programming according to the specific needs of each student, board spokesperson Bruce Campbell said in an email.

But the Skrts argue that without designated one-on-one support from properly trained staff, the current policy is not sufficient to meet Jack’s needs. The board counters that the level of support the Skrts are seeking is beyond what “special education” is required to provide.

Beth herself works in the board as an education resource worker. She has not been trained to use ABA in the classroom, but says she would welcome the opportunity.

The decision to launch a human rights case was not a quick one for the Skrts, who are busy working parents — Mike works for a pest control company — and are expecting their third child in May.

Money is tight and they’ve spent more than $100,000 on Jack’s therapy. They are receiving support for the case from donors, says Baker, and are hoping a crowd-funding campaign will help cover legal costs.

Their roots are also deep in the community. Both have lived in Mississauga all their lives and attended Dufferin-Peel Catholic board schools. Mike even went to St. Timothy’s as a child, and his mother was a teacher at the board.

Beth says she’s already had a taste of the difference ABA could make to Jack in the classroom.

Over the course of a year until last fall, Jack spent one afternoon a week in an after-school program at St. Timothy’s run by PLASP Child Care Service, which permitted the Skrts to hire an aide trained in ABA to accompany him.

As Jack played in his regular class alongside children he knew, the therapist used ABA principles to teach him such tasks as raising his hand to signal a teacher, undressing after outdoor play and greeting other children.

“I’d pick him up and he’d be playing away with the other kids,” says Beth. “It was the perfect example of how ABA could work in schools.”

https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/04/07/parents-battle-for-sons-right-to-autism-services-in-school.html

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