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For decades, educators have tried to welcome students with special needs in regular classrooms – but faced with behavioural problems and violence, some school boards resort to sending those pupils home. What will it take to make inclusive education work?

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Lisa Kahn hugs her son Grayson, 7, who was diagnosed with autism in 2017. He was expelled from school for striking an educational assistant. He now stays at the family home in Guelph, Ont., getting private instruction from the school district while his parents appeal the expulsion.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Kahn developed a daily routine this fall. She’d eat breakfast, feed her family and get her two children ready for school – Grayson, a seven-year-old boy with strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, and his older sister, Avery. After she dropped them off, she’d practise deep breathing with help from an app on her watch.

And then she would brace herself for the phone call.

At some point during the day, she knew that Grayson’s school was likely to call and ask her to pick him up because he was causing trouble. If she made it through the day without the phone ringing, she’d steel herself at pickup for a staff member to approach and tell her about something awful her son had done.

Ms. Kahn had hoped the school could accommodate Grayson’s developmental disorder – he was diagnosed with autism in the summer of 2017, and while he’s verbal and can impressively add figures in his head, he becomes aggressive if rules change or the work becomes too difficult.

But in September, he was suspended for part of the day after attempting to push an educational assistant down the stairs. A couple of weeks later, he picked up a chair and tossed it at another child. On other occasions, he punched, shoved, kicked and threatened staff and other students, school administrators say.

And then in late October, everything boiled over. After an incident when Grayson struck an educational assistant, leaving her with bruises, scrapes and a concussion, the seven-year-old was expelled from school.

Now Ms. Kahn and her husband Dave are scrambling to piece together a new plan for educating Grayson, who they firmly believe belongs in the public school system.

“Not only has he been stripped of all his peer connections,” says Ms. Kahn, “but he’s been stripped of his right to an education.”

The Kahns have filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and they’ve appealed the expulsion. For now, at least, they’re keeping Grayson at home, and up until recently, the school district was providing him with home instruction. Ms. Kahn now works with him daily, doing lessons in reading, writing and math.

It’s an imperfect solution for their son, they say, and makes it difficult for both of them to work during the daytime.

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Grayson plays a table-soccer game with his father, Dave, at home on a school day. The administrators at Grayson’s school, John McCrae Public School in Guelph, Ont., say that they can’t safely accommodate him.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The family’s experience highlights the growing challenges that parents – and educators – face when it comes to accommodating special-needs children in the public school system. Over the past few decades, schools across Canada have moved toward a model of inclusive education, but many are struggling to find the best ways to include children with complex needs in regular classrooms.

The issue of inclusive classrooms has become a matter of fierce debate – and some educators wonder if inclusion has gone too far for students with very complex needs. Inclusiveness can’t work, they say, without a thoughtful rethinking of how we teach children with diverse needs and how we structure the school day.

Teachers report an uptick in violent incidents disrupting classrooms, tensions arise among families who feel the safety and learning of their own children are at risk, and school districts struggle with embracing inclusion while providing a safe environment for staff and students. Meanwhile, families with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up kids early, start the school day later or simply keep them home for the entire day. Complicating matters is the fact that apart from a few advocacy or parent group surveys, most school districts don’t formally track these exclusions or shortened days.

Jacqueline Specht, director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s faculty of education, says the system is clearly broken when a seven-year-old is expelled and can’t be properly accommodated. “What are we doing that we expel seven-year-olds instead of really looking at what’s causing this behaviour, and how do we stop that behaviour?”

Research shows young people in inclusive classrooms tend to have more friends, and are better off academically and feel better about themselves than they do when they’re educated in separate, segregated classrooms, Dr. Specht says. But administrators at Grayson’s school, John McCrae Public School in Guelph, Ont., say that they can’t safely accommodate Grayson.

So, as children across Canada head back to school this week, Ms. Kahn’s son will be staying at home. As she and her family have discovered, the road to inclusion is paved with good intentions, but riddled with cracks.

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The Kahns embrace the idea of inclusive education and believe Grayson should learn alongside his neighbourhood peers.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Before the 1970s, it was not uncommon for children with special needs to be excluded from schooling. Too often, these children barely got an education; many were early dropouts.

The 1960s civil-rights movement in the United States, while it focused on race, also spurred awareness about the challenges facing students with complex needs, according to researcher Sheila Bennett, a professor at Brock University and co-author of Special Education in Ontario Schools. Riding that wave, organizations such as the Association for Community Living successfully pushed for changes that called for more inclusive education in several provinces, Dr. Bennett says.

In Ontario, Bill 82 in 1980 was a game-changer, requiring every school board to provide special-education programs and services for students with complex needs. Over time – and as a result of advances in thinking combined with lobbying from parents and advocacy groups – schools began including more of these children in regular classrooms full-time, rather than segregating them in separate classrooms. To support special-needs students, school boards often employ educational assistants to work collaboratively with teachers, although teachers' unions argue that most classrooms don’t have enough of them.

Philosophically, the Kahns embrace the idea of inclusive education. They believe Grayson should learn alongside his neighbourhood peers, and they try to expose him to a range of activities, including swimming and hip-hop dance lessons.

They were proactive when Grayson started having trouble in senior kindergarten. For the most part, students aren’t assessed for disabilities until Grade 3, but when they heard reports of behavioural issues, including pushing classmates, the Kahns did not want to wait. They wanted their son to thrive socially and academically, so they spent $2,800 to have him privately assessed and discovered he had autism.

With the help of an educational assistant, Grayson had a successful school year in Grade 1, with no suspensions or calls for early pickups. When he began Grade 2, Ms. Kahn met with school administrators. Grayson had shown more aggressive behaviour over the summer – he’d struck his mother for the first time, after becoming frustrated about not being able to express himself – and she wanted to ensure there was a plan in place at school to deal with the challenges.

Because the school team believed it would be too stressful for one person to work with him for the whole day, they assigned two educational assistants – one for the morning and another for the afternoon. The approach raised red flags with Ms. Kahn, who says her child does better with one person.

The plan fell apart almost instantly. Students and staff reported physical and verbal assaults. Grayson was spending large chunks of the school day in the office.

At first, administrators asked Ms. Kahn to pick up Grayson early or keep him home for several days. Later, they hatched a return-to-school plan: They would let Grayson come back, but only for 15 minutes a day, Ms. Kahn says. His return would be graduated over a period of time.

Ms. Kahn was exasperated: “Who’s going to pay my bills?” she recalls saying. “Who’s taking care of my child? We work. What about his education?”

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Annie Kidder, shown in 2011, is executive director of the advocacy group People for Education. When the group surveyed principals if they had ever requested children stay home, she was surprised at how widespread the practice is.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A few years ago, Annie Kidder’s organization, People for Education, an education advocacy group, began receiving calls from parents with similar questions: Are principals allowed to ask that I keep my child home for all or part of the day? Can my child be asked to come in later than his classmates?

The answer to these questions is yes. But nobody had documented the scope of the problem. So four years ago, in its annual survey, the group asked principals if they had ever requested that children stay home.

Ms. Kidder says she was “astounded” by the response: 48 per cent of elementary-school principals and 40 per cent of high-school principals reported asking that a student with special needs not attend school for the full day, citing insufficient classroom support. “We didn’t expect that. We thought it was a rare occurrence," she says. In its latest report, released last year, the numbers have risen to 58 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively.

Similarly, a survey of parents of children with special needs released in November, 2017 by the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils found that children with special needs were missing anywhere from half an hour to three hours of school daily or being told to stay home because of staff shortages. A number of children, the survey found, were sent home because of behavioural incidents at school, and these exclusions, which were undocumented, would continue for days or weeks. Another survey, conducted by an advocacy group called BCEdAccess, found that a number of parents are being forced out of the public education system as a result.

Expulsions such as Grayson’s are rare, but it’s difficult to know how common other measures are. Most school districts or provinces don’t formally track when a child’s school day is shortened – a so-called undocumented suspension. Ms. Kidder says her survey results suggest it’s a problem that should be tracked. (Ms. Kahn was asked to keep Grayson home for a number of days with no formal paperwork from the district.)

Luke Reid, a lawyer at ARCH Disability Law Centre, who practises primarily in the areas of education law and human rights for people with disabilities requiring accommodation, says school administrators see it as a “request” that a parent voluntarily withdraw their children for part of the school day.

“However, as you might guess, these often don’t feel like requests to parents and they happen with surprising regularity in many cases, all of which can have a big impact on the family,” Mr. Reid says. “There needs to be some sort of accountability mechanism in place to ensure that school boards are properly exercising these powers.”

The issue has become so top-of-mind that two school districts – North Vancouver and Greater Victoria – passed motions this fall to record how many children with special needs are being asked to stay home, or are sent home early or dropped off late and being excluded from field trips.

Jordan Watters, chair of the Greater Victoria School Board, says school staff need to understand the challenges so supports can address them and children with special needs can be meaningfully included. "Our move to track incidents of exclusion is intended to help us do that,” she says.

The head of Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board, says it, too, has started tracking how many children are being excluded, and is asking principals to work with superintendents before requesting a child stay home.

John Malloy, the director of education, says many children are successfully included in schools, and there will always be a small number who need a special program, but the board is committed to including, “wherever possible,” students in the neighbourhood school.

“We are really looking at how we can serve more of our students in their community school where it’s appropriate,” Dr. Malloy says. Still, he cautions, “there are only so many resources. There are only so many staff.”

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John Malloy, head of the Toronto District School Board, says the board wants to accommodate students with special needs 'wherever possible.'Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

“What remains our challenge is that even though we want to serve each and every student in the most inclusive way possible, some students may have needs that exceed our level of experience and that is something we are sometimes challenged by,” he says, adding that school districts often partner with community agencies and hospitals.

Part of the problem, some academics say, is that more students are being diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities that were for a long time overlooked. People for Education found that the proportion of elementary kids receiving special-education support – anything from a little extra help in a regular class to the provision of one, or even two, dedicated staff – has doubled over the past two decades. At the TDSB, about 40,000 students, roughly 16 per cent of kids, are supported through Individual Education Plans.

Integration, though, still makes some parents uneasy. In Grayson’s classroom, parents were concerned for the safety of their children.

“I know that the Kahns are likely arguing his right to an education, but what about the rights of the rest of the kids?” one parent wrote in a letter that was included in the principal’s expulsion investigation report. “In addition to the threat to safety, his actions are a near constant disruption to classroom activities. This is not acceptable.”

Another parent said her daughter hasn’t been physically harmed by Grayson, but she was “uncomfortable in class and worried for those around her” when Grayson was present.

There were reports that some of Grayson’s classmates felt anxious and reported stomach aches. Some of the staff said they had trouble sleeping and felt worried and anxious being around the young boy.

Ms. Kahn is sympathetic, but wonders why her son should be punished for his condition. She says Grayson is the victim of a system that cannot properly handle children who have special needs that come with behavioural issues.

The Upper Grand District School Board, for its part, wouldn’t comment on Grayson’s case, but also said it is strongly committed to supporting students with special needs while balancing the safety of students and staff. In the principal’s expulsion report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, the school said that Ms. Kahn’s “extreme hostility” and “repeated verbal assaults” to staff had been stressful and caused emotional harm. She counters that she was only serving as an advocate for her son.

School staff suggested alternative programs, including a therapeutic school, as well as switching him to the English stream (Grayson was in French immersion), which has an intervention program that teaches self-regulation skills and frustration management. But Ms. Kahn says the therapeutic school, an hour’s drive away, was too far from home, and the board hasn’t spelled out to her what supports he would have at the English school.

Grayson wants to rejoin his classmates, she says. “There’s a lot of little things the school could have been doing to help facilitate that but they didn’t. So they just kind of let the behaviours get to the point where they’re out of control, and they say, ‘Sorry, this child is a threat to safety. He can’t be here.’”

The principal, on the other hand, argues the school made “significant efforts” to accommodate Grayson’s needs while keeping both him and his classmates safe, including drawing up support plans, providing him with full-time educational assistant support and having the board’s mental-health clinician observe him.

Leslie Newman writes in her report that she is satisfied staff made all “reasonable efforts” to accommodate Grayson and “that some of them have suffered significant physical and emotional harm in the course of these accommodation efforts.”

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The principal at Grayson’s school, John McCrae Public School in Guelph, cites 'significant efforts' to accommodate Grayson.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

In Ontario, and across much of the country, school districts are responsible for determining how best to accommodate special-needs students and aims to include them in regular classrooms, wherever possible.

New Brunswick takes the policy of inclusive education the farthest – it calls for a “common learning environment” for all students. Segregated classrooms aren’t an option, and instruction must be primarily provided by the classroom teacher.

The provincial government doesn’t track how many students are attending for only part of the day, and the New Brunswick Teachers' Association president, George Daley, says while the model is important, it has been “difficult.” He says teachers need more supports and there needs to be flexibility so students with behavioural issues can spend time outside the regular classroom learning different life skills.

Teachers' unions say that violent behaviour in classrooms is disrupting teaching and student learning. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, for example, reports that 83 per cent of its members say violence in school is making teaching more difficult.

Paul Bennett, an education consultant based in Halifax, says a movement to make the classroom the be-all and end-all of inclusion is shortsighted.

“The system is not built to accommodate the range of diversity we now have in our school system,” he says.

In the case of children such as Grayson who have the most complex and acute needs, Mr. Bennett says the public education system should provide one-on-one intensive supports and only provide alternative school settings if integration doesn’t work.

“I do not believe in segregation,” Mr. Bennett says. “I believe in integration of everyone as far as they possibly can be integrated. But when they fall two, three, four grades behind everyone else, when they’re not able to follow, when they’re acting out, when they’re extremely frustrated, parents are looking for alternatives.”

Prof. Specht, of Western, has seen students who have struggled with aggressive behaviour moved to another school and do much better. Others, she says, may need time away for intense therapy, or to spend 15 minutes in the regular classroom and work on being there longer.

“There are still too many students who are in segregated classes who could be included. Cases like this one [Grayson’s case] are used to say inclusion does not work rather than perhaps thinking it is a rare occurrence,” she says. “There are many positive stories of inclusion that will say, inclusion is what we ought to move toward.”

But some parents say the positive stories stem from efforts made by individual teachers, and not necessarily the public school system.

Tina McGee’s nine-year-old daughter, Kherrigan, has severe autism, medical issues and a severe intellectual disability. In Grade 1 at a school in Abbotsford, B.C., Kherrigan had what Ms. McGee describes as a “phenomenal teacher,” who was supported by a full-time educational assistant.

Before Valentine’s Day, knowing that Kherrigan would not be able to chew the treats being brought to school, the teacher sent a note home asking kids to think of what they could give their classmate instead. Some brought cupcakes, others came in with stuffed animals and hair accessories, mostly red as they knew it was Kherrigan’s favourite colour. “She would make plans around Kherrigan and include her in everything," Ms. McGee says.

But when the family moved to Chilliwack, B.C., and changed schools, she was asked almost weekly to keep Kherrigan home in her Grade 3 year due to staffing shortages – educational assistants were juggling as many as five children each. Ms. McGee responded by enrolling Kherrigan in a private school that could accommodate her daughter’s needs.

Still, she says she believes that inclusion can work. “It can if the teachers and staff aren’t so overworked.”

Bruce Uditsky of Inclusion Alberta, a non-profit organization that advocates for children and adults with developmental disabilities, says inclusion is dependent on the leadership and mindset of those in charge. Two school districts could have equal funding, but one will successfully include children and the other won’t, he says.

“Teachers or principals or districts should not be guardians to the classroom door as to which kid is valued and which isn’t,” he says. “Both government and the system are being allowed to escape [their] responsibility for ensuring that kids with disabilities have access to the same education as would be true for kids without disabilities.”

Some parents, he says, are tired of fighting.

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Grayson makes crafts at his home. His mother says Grayson is the victim of a system that cannot properly handle children with behavioural issues.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Laurie Pett turned to home schooling as a last resort when her 10-year-old son, Connor, was deemed too burdensome for the regular school system. The family moved to Quesnel, B.C. in the middle of the last school year, and Ms. Pett met with the school principal to discuss how best to accommodate Connor, who has been diagnosed with autism, oppositional defiant disorder and apraxia. He has behavioural issues, including aggression and a tendency to run.

She was told that Connor could attend the school’s breakfast club every morning for the first few months. When she said that wasn’t acceptable, the principal increased the plan to one hour at school a day. There wasn’t funding in the school’s budget, he said, to support Connor more.

The family has four other children with behavioural issues, all of whom have been accommodated by the school. But Connor is “definitely not welcome,” she says. “And I don’t get the feeling that he’s welcome in our district.”

When Ms. Pett speaks about inclusion, she laughs. “It’s not about cracks in the system,” she says. “They’re big gaping holes.”

Ms. Kahn agrees, and has now pulled her daughter Avery, who is nine and has also been diagnosed with autism, out of their local school because she doesn’t believe she’ll get the support she needs.

“It’s not just that I’m fighting for my kid,” Ms. Kahn says. “I’m fighting for all those other kids who have left the system, all the ones who are coming behind us who are not going to have the financial means to hire a lawyer, or financial means to stay home with their children.”

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