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Alberta Alberta urged to ban or regulate restraining special-needs children at school

Education Minister David Eggen said in a statement on Friday that he was “disturbed” by what parents shared around their children’s experiences with seclusion rooms. The rooms can be used to give out-of-control child a place to calm down, or as a punishment for their behaviour.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

More than half of parents in Alberta say their children with special needs have been restrained at school or confined in seclusion rooms, prompting disability advocates to call on the province to ban or govern the use of these practices.

An analysis of survey data released on Friday by Inclusion Alberta, a group that advocates on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, found that about 80 per cent of parents said their child experienced emotional distress after being restrained. A smaller number noted their children showed signs of physical trauma.

The survey of nearly 400 families included voices of parents who spoke of the emotional and physical trauma their children suffered as a result of being restrained or confined. Some said they turned to home-schooling their children. “My son cries every day when he has to go to school, and he is in tears when I pick him up. He is visibly distressed and suffers anxiety from this abuse,” one wrote.

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“He spent all day, every day, working in a very small storage room,” another parent wrote about their child.

Bruce Uditsky, chief executive emeritus of Inclusion Alberta, said the data was “disturbing.” He said the government has guidelines around the use of seclusion and physical restraints, but they are not enforced.

Education Minister David Eggen said in a statement on Friday that he was “disturbed” by what parents shared around their children’s experiences with seclusion rooms. The rooms can be used to give out-of-control child a place to calm down, or as a punishment for their behaviour.

“We can and must do better for our kids,” Mr. Eggen said. "After initial discussions with the working group I established on this matter, I am convinced that seclusion rooms must be banned. That said, we know that we need to find a safe space for students that are struggling and need therapeutic supports in school.”

The minister was unavailable for an interview, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Eggen announced the working group last fall to draft new guidelines and identify best practices on how schools should use seclusion rooms, restraint and timeouts. The issue came to the forefront after a lawsuit was launched last year by parents in Sherwood Park who say 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 working group did not come to a consensus on draft guidelines last year. It will meet again in the coming weeks to work on them, the government said.

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“Whether or not Inclusion Alberta wants to help with this work is up to them,” Mr. Eggen said. "By working together on this important issue, I know we will enact change that will be in the best interest of our students and their safety.”

But Mr. Uditsky said the government has not responded to recent letters from his organization. The group is not in favour of the draft guidelines, which it describes as “inadequate and ineffectual,” and said rules that govern these practices are needed. “It was time to raise it publicly again and not be ignored or dismissed by the ministry over something as critical as a child’s very safety and well-being,” Mr. Uditsky said about raising the issue in a news conference on Friday.

Several provinces have struggled with including children with developmental disabilities in regular classrooms, even as they’ve moved toward a model of inclusive education over the past few decades.

In its latest report, released last year, People for Education, an Ontario advocacy group, noted an increase in the number of elementary and secondary school principals who report recommending a special-education student stay home for at least part of a day. The organization found 58 per cent of elementary school heads and 48 per cent of high school principals made the request, up from 48 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively, in 2014.

And another advocacy group, Inclusion B.C., published a report of what it described as “disturbing practices,” including a student left in seclusion for more than three hours, another tied to a chair and others restrained with straps or cuffs.

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