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How often are special needs kids excluded from school? Ontario won't say

The Ontario Autism Coalition got 'the runaround' when it asked for data on the exclusion of special needs kids from school
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Patrice Barnes, Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education walk through an Etobicoke library, before a making a Government announcement, in Toronto, Sunday, April 16, 2023.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Sometimes, families will get a call at about 7 a.m. telling them their kid's education assistant has called in sick, so the student can't go to class that day.

Other times, it's more formal: a student who has a violent incident at school is excluded for months on end before the school can come up with a safe way to manage their return to class.

For one family, it was recess: the school kept the student inside for months, without telling the parents, because they didn't have an EA who could keep the child safe outside.

The Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) has plenty of anecdotes, but when it tried to get hard data from the Ontario government, it hit a wall. 

Kate Dudley-Logue, vice president of community outreach for the organization, said she met with government officials and parliamentary assistant Patrice Barnes early this year and asked to get data about special needs students being excluded from schools. She said she was told the government would have to get it from the province's 72 school boards, and that would take some time. As of Monday, it still hadn't come through. 

In the meantime, the coalition worked with the official opposition at Queen's Park to collect some data of their own. NDP education critic Chandra Pasma and the OAC circulated a survey asking parents of autistic children about their exclusions from school. 

"We know that this provides just a small snapshot of the problem, yet the results are revealing," said Pasma at a press conference Monday. "We know that at least 78 children missed 558.5 hours of school in Ontario in the past two weeks alone."

One-third of these exclusions were for the full school day and more than 80 per cent were ongoing exclusions, rather than a one-time incident, she said. The reason given for the majority of one-time exclusions was insufficient staff and a lack of trained staff also contributed to the long-term exclusions.

Pasma was clear that the survey wasn't scientific, or applicable to the population at large, but reflects the experiences of the 78 children it covered.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Steven Lecce told The Trillium Monday he does have data on school exclusions.

"We're cognizant of data from the year prior," he said in a brief interview in the halls of Queen's Park. "And that's been informative for the government as we take action to better educate staff support training, funding, and really try to change the culture where these kids are in schools accommodated, respected, and more importantly, have an ability to learn in front of their peers with their teachers."

School boards are required to report on all exclusions that occur within the board for each school year. The ministry collects data on the total number of exclusions, the total number of students excluded, the total number of students excluded who were receiving special education programs and/or services and the total number of days students were excluded.

"We know that these kids particularly with disability and exceptionality, they already faced difficulties, so anything we can do to support them is something we're inclined to do, which is why we've increased the staffing," he added, saying the government has increased the number of educational assistants in schools by 3,000.

Lecce said the school boards collect the data and the ministry gets access to it at the end of the year — but asked to share it, Lecce said that the intention of his comments was that "anything governments, school boards and schools can do to accommodate kids, that keeps them in class, is the right thing."

A subsequent request to the minister's office by The Trillium to see a copy of that data for the most recent school year went unanswered. 

Dudley-Logue, who spearheaded the effort on behalf of the OAC, said she thinks it's likely the government gave her group "the runaround" when it asked for the data.

"If you're tracking it, where is it? Let's release it publicly," she said. "They don't want to answer that question. They don't want to give that information."

However, Dudley-Logue said she also believes the school boards' data is somewhat incomplete because they track longer-term, formal exclusions but do not record informal occurrences that aren't documented by the school, but occur frequently.

Both Dudley-Logue and Pasma, the MPP, said they believe exclusions are becoming more common and that they keep happening because there aren't enough EAs in schools to prevent behavioural issues from happening before they start. Fixing that would require more funding for special needs and more training for educational assistants. 

They're hoping the data could convince the government of the need for that.

"We absolutely need to do better," said Pasma. "And doing better starts with properly tracking and reporting this data so that we can understand the extent of the problem."



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Jessica Smith Cross

About the Author: Jessica Smith Cross

Reporting for Metro newspapers in five Canadian cities, as well as for CTV, the Guelph Mercury and the Turtle Island News. She made the leap to political journalism in 2016...
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