Alberta’s government has repealed a ban on seclusion rooms in schools that was meant to take effect next week due to concerns about student safety, and will allow the spaces to continue operating under stricter rules.
The province’s former NDP government had declared a ban would start in September. However, Alberta’s Education Minister issued a ministerial order Thursday that cancelled the ban because the province felt it would limit a school’s ability to protect students and staff.
Adriana LaGrange says she is instituting interim rules that expire at the end of October, with permanent regulations expected to follow. Those regulations would include new restrictions on how the rooms can be used. The interim rules require schools to report the use of seclusion rooms to parents within 24 hours, and stop the use of the spaces as a form of discipline for disruptive students − confinement must instead be limited to emergencies.
“School boards, teachers, administrators and parents clearly tell me that a full ban limits a school’s ability to protect the safety of everyone,” Ms. LaGrange said in a news release issued by her office.
Several provinces have struggled with including children with severe developmental and intellectual disabilities in classrooms, even as they’ve moved toward a model of inclusive education over the past few decades.
Seclusion rooms are separate spaces used in many schools across the country to temporarily isolate children who are disruptive or show potentially dangerous behaviour. The rooms are sometimes soundproof, sometimes small with no windows, with dim lighting, soft seating or with locks on the doors.
An analysis of survey data earlier this year by Inclusion Alberta, a group that advocates on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, found more than half of parents surveyed in the province said their children with special needs were restrained at school or confined in seclusion rooms. Some said they subsequently turned to home-schooling their children.
Inclusion Alberta and others opposed to seclusion rooms in the past offered a cautious endorsement of Ms. LaGrange’s move, but only if the United Conservative government offers schools more funding for the hiring of additional staff and more specialized training for teachers. The minister’s office has so far made no promise of additional funds and Ms. LaGrange was not available for an interview Thursday.
The issue came to the forefront after a lawsuit was launched against the province and a school district in 2018 by parents Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel in Sherwood Park, outside Edmonton. The parents allege that their 12-year-old son with autism was stripped naked and locked in a school isolation room, where he was found covered in his own feces. The province and school district have denied the allegations.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Ms. Oakes said she was initially concerned with the minister’s move, but now believes Ms. LaGrange could improve on a ban that allowed schools too much leeway in requesting exemptions and didn’t deal with the larger problem of staff training.
“I hope this means we will get what I really wanted all along, which is true guidelines and enforceable rules, where schools will have to be held accountable for how they manage crises and other behavioural situations with kids. I hope this is an opportunity to get things right,” she said.
Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the best outcome after October would be adequate funding for schools to ensure they never need to use seclusion rooms.
“They are the symptom of a larger problem in the system – that there isn’t enough support in schools to ensure the safety of staff and students," Mr. Schilling said. "That’s the larger conversation that needs to be held. If the government is serious about the things they’ve put out today and the things they’ve said, they need to be serious and pay for it.”
The Alberta government has warned schools that their budgets could be frozen because of the province’s budget deficit. School boards are starting the academic year without a budget and have expressed concerns that programs could be cut if the provincial government doesn’t announce soon how much it will spend on education this year.
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