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Lack of support for students with special needs endangers everyone

"Did the placement officer tell you these students could be physically abusive?"

The question caught me off guard the first time I was asked by a secretary as I checked into a school as a supply education assistant. I soon grew used to it – my answer was always, "No." I may not have accepted such placements had I known in advance, but after a two-hour bus ride I wasn't going to leave without getting paid for a day's work.

I was usually sent to classrooms specifically for elementary students with special needs – we called them "self-contained." One day I might be helping a student with nonverbal autism, the next assisting children with anger-management issues (after being warned that biting and spitting were possibilities).

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Many days were predictable, but not all of them. Once, a student jumped out of a second-storey window and started running; another time, a child flew into a rage, clearing every object from multiple bookcases around the room.

These experiences came to mind at the beginning of September, when I heard that police had transported an eight-year-old Toronto-area boy to a hospital, where he was shackled and sedated. His mother, Debbie Kiroff, was desperate for answers and assistance: Her son has several severe behaviour and learning issues. He was also on multiple wait lists for support and treatment.

Current Ontario education policy is aimed at integrating students with special needs in mainstream classrooms "before considering the option of placing a student in a special education class." But stories such asKiroff's call into question whether that's in the best interests of all students and educators. Having taught in both self-contained special-education classes as well as regular classes working to accommodate such students, I think that both scenarios have their place – and both require sufficient trained staff to work properly.

That's currently not the case, according to the charity People for Education. These days, it's more likely a teacher is trying to manage students with special needs in addition to regular classroom duties: the group's 2014 report on special education found that only 2 per cent of Ontario students spend "the majority of their day" in a special-education classroom.

The group also found that "17 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of secondary school students receive special education assistance – percentages which have increased steadily over the last two decades."

That's a lot of students: about one-fifth of the youth in any given publicly funded school. Yet the report noted that "… many principals said it is difficult to meet students' needs without sufficient – and skilled – support from EAs [educational assistants]" and that the current ratio is "… insufficient to meet demand."

In the early 1990s, the ratios seemed much more effective, especially when I worked in self-contained classrooms. In fact, I sometimes found myself in classes with the same number of adults as students – a teacher as well as other support staff, such as child and youth workers.

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I usually spent part of the day in that assigned room and the rest of it accompanying students to spend time in the regular classrooms for specific lessons. Things didn't always go smoothly, but we were able to help students with severe needs because there were enough adults to be flexible.

If it was a calm day, we could fade into the background and assist when needed, often helping other students. If it was a rough day, we could return to home base and try again the next day.

Without these proper supports, many schools have become unsafe and unworkable environments for everyone involved. That includes parents of children with special needs who have reported their children didn't thrive until they accessed specialized programs in self-contained classrooms.

It also includes families whose children don't have special needs: The Toronto District School Board is currently facing a lawsuit by a family alleging "… their school failed to protect [their children] from repeated threats and assaults inflicted by a classmate with special needs…."

And it includes the educators taking care of our youth: in Durham region last fall, an Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents said they felt unsafe "sometimes or always."

An integrated classroom with enough supports for every student would be a success of inclusionary goals. But without that backbone, the school system is currently prioritizing an idea over reality.

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An effective policy would focus most of all on student safety and success. There would be funding to provide the recommended assistive technologies. Most importantly, there would be enough trained support staff to assist all students, whether in a regular or specialized classroom. And teachers could spend more time teaching instead of managing crises.

Debbie Kiroff's son is now getting the support he needs, but only after media attention and a traumatic experience. Ontario students who need specialized programs should get them before they are shackled and sedated.

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