May
Government, Leadership

Last week CBC reported on the story of a family whose autistic child was removed from Landmark East because they couldn’t handle him. At the end of the day this is the story of a boy named Adam, but it is also the story of so many like him, and the systematic failures of an education system that requires children to attend school but is unable to address the wide variety of needs which exist. This is a problem. It’s a problem from a moral and ethical point of view. But it’s also an economic problem. Kids like Adam have skills and gifts which can contribute to the province, but if we fail them in their early years we don’t realize those gifts and we are poorer as a province for it.

This is a sad story. Its one I wasn’t sure I was going to weigh in on because, in full disclosure, the family are friends of mine. I’ve seen what they’ve gone through and the sacrifices they’ve made to get their child an education. What I realized as I reflected on the story over the past week is their story is all too common in Nova Scotia. They are brave enough to come forward, but their story is shared by many others. Over 13 years in elected office, and even in cases that people bring to me since leaving office, I’ve seen similar stories time and time again.

There are two big issues in this situation. The response of Landmark East to the family, and the failure of the education system that forces parents out of the public system in Nova Scotia.

Landmark East’s response in the CBC story is nothing short of appalling. Much of my work is now in communications, public engagement, corporate responsibility, and government affairs. The response of Landmark East to this family is a textbook case of how not to handle this type of situation. The school decided they can’t handle Adam. They are a private school and it’s their right to accept or kick out who they want. What the story doesn’t talk about however is that Landmark East was well aware of Adam’s challenges before taking him on as a student and yet they did so anyhow. They were also aware that the family was going to give up their life in Halifax and move to Wolfville so Adam could attend. They knew when deciding they could take Adam as a student that Lisa would quit her job in Halifax, and Greg would commute.

Greg commutes to Halifax sometimes sleeping on a floor in the city because the weather makes travel impossible. Lisa, wanting to ensure one parent was always available to get to the school if needed, left her job in Halifax and became a volunteer firefighter in Wolfville. Contributing to the very community that welcomed them and their son. The school knew the family was by no means rich and would struggle to meet the $22,000 tuition. Yet they took Adam, knowing the challenges he’d had in public school, and knowing the family had been forced to pull him out and school him at home while they sought somewhere that could provide the necessary supports. The headmaster says they went to “heroic lengths” and yet, they won’t even offer the family a pro-rated portion of their tuition back. The contracts at most private schools don’t allow tuition to be refunded because they don’t want the financial risk of people dropping out or leaving if they move. But many schools in practice do work with families to return unused tuition. In this case, Adam isn’t leaving the school by his choice, but by the school’s. Having watched this unfold since the family’s move to Wolfville. It’s hard to believe that this respected school in Wolfville could be so uncaring in their public reaction to the issue.

Of course, this family should never have had to pull up stakes and move to Wolfville in the first place, even as nice a town as it is. If the public education system truly provided an education for all, and was appropriately funded to do just that, this never would have happened. The Education Act requires children to be in school and therefore, the province has to provide the ability for students to actually attend and all reasonable supports to succeed.

Persons required to attend

111

Subject to the regulations, every resident of the Province over the age of five years and under the age of sixteen years shall attend school in accordance with the regulations. 1995-96, c. 1, s. 111.

The reason Adam and his family ended up in Wolfville was precisely because the public education system could not provide the supports for Adam to be in school. Adam is by no means an exception. Teachers have to manage a classroom of all kinds of different personalities, but they also require the supports to manage students with challenges, whether they be physical, behavioural, or medical. Those supports are, by any definition, insufficient. Talk of solving these issues and providing needed support has been going on for decades, and there are no proposed plans which would truly address the shear volume of needs in the education system, nor the range of needs across the province. This leaves Adam, and not only Adam, but students with far greater challenges, with nowhere to go. That is a failure of governments over the years and a failure of society.

I’m no expert in autism. Frankly I don’t know a lot about it. I do know there is a wide spectrum and I know Adam is somewhere on that spectrum. I’ve spent time with Adam in different environments. He’s a good kid. He’s a very smart kid. He needs support because the way his autism manifests itself, he has occasional behavioural challenges. His teachers certainly need supports in place as well to help them manage students like Adam, but isn’t that the point of the public education system? To ensure those supports are in fact in place and sufficient for students, no matter what their needs?

The public education system is failing too many kids with lack of diversity in programming options and lack of support for kids with all different personalities, learning challenges, and behavioural issues. This impacts everyone in the classroom. Teachers, other students, and the kids with the challenges themselves. There are kids who sit at the back of the room and become the class clown because they aren’t challenged enough or have attention issues. There are kids with medical issues who are simply pushed through the system with no one there to help identify their strengths and building on those. The missed opportunities are many.

You might care about this issue because of the social justice failure by successive governments in structuring an education system that works and is designed to support the success of children with different abilities and challenges. Even if you don’t care about that side of the equation, this is the sort of thing which has long term economic implications for the province. As a society we are missing out on the potential contributions of people with disabilities and challenges of all kinds because the system pushes them through or pushes them out rather than seeing the immense potential.

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