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Toronto Integration of special-needs pupil at the heart of Toronto school lawsuit

Two elementary pupils and their parents are suing the Toronto District School Board and their principal, saying their school failed to protect them from repeated threats and assaults inflicted by a classmate with special needs, according to a lawsuit filed in an Ontario court.

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Two elementary pupils and their parents are suing the Toronto District School Board and their principal, saying their school failed to protect them from repeated threats and assaults inflicted by a classmate with special needs, according to a lawsuit filed in an Ontario court.

The case of two young children suing a school board for not protecting them from another pupil is unusual, and highlights the tensions in the education system between integrating children with special needs and ensuring a reasonably safe environment for everyone.

Olivia Warning, in Grade 3, and her sister Charlotte, who is in Grade 1, along with their parents, allege that the school board and their principal at John Wanless Junior Public School, at Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue West, were negligent this academic year and did not do enough to keep children reasonably safe from a special-needs pupil who had behavioural issues.

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"Despite months of repeated exposure to physical, verbal and sexual assaults and bullying by Student L to the plaintiffs, Olivia and Charlotte, the defendants failed to take appropriate actions and maintain a safe school environment for the plaintiffs, Olivia and Charlotte," says the statement of claim, filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice at the end of May.

The statement of claim says that Olivia was the target of assaults by her classmate with special needs, that included being pushed down on a climber, hit with a hockey stick, almost stabbed with an uncurled paper clip, kicked, threatened and pinched once on her buttocks. Her younger sister, Charlotte, was also being threatened by the special-needs pupil and was repeatedly approached at recess, according to the claim.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit has been proved in court.

The TDSB, Canada's largest school district, declined to comment on the case.

"The Toronto District School Board is committed to ensuring the safety of all students. As it's currently before the courts, we cannot comment on this complex case, except to say that we deny the allegations being made and will shortly be filing a Statement of Defence," spokesman Ryan Bird said in a statement.

The lawyer for the family said the parents were compelled to launch the lawsuit after spending months asking the principal and the school board for help in protecting their children, especially Olivia who was a classmate of the pupil.

"It's a very unfortunate situation. The parents are not happy that they have to bring a lawsuit. But at some point, they've got to keep their little girl safe and the school's got to do more, and they're just not doing enough," lawyer Justin Linden said.

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He added: "This isn't about not accommodating special-needs children. Special-needs children should be accommodated. They should be given a place. They should be taken care of. They should be integrated as much as possible. But where the needs cannot be safely accommodated, the school board should make other accommodations. They haven't done it, and … a little girl should not be subject to constant physical abuse."

The statement of claim says that the principal failed to to inform the parents when the special-needs student acted aggressively toward Olivia and Charlotte. The claim says staff tried to separate the special-needs pupil from Olivia, but it resulted in Olivia being punished: She was not allowed to play on the climber during afternoon recess because the other pupil was on it or she had to stand beside the teacher at recess, for example.

A special-needs assistant was brought in around March, but "this step did not diminish the assaults and threatening behaviour against Olivia or Charlotte," the claim says. "Ultimately the special-needs assistant left the school after being assaulted by Student L."

Only when the parents advised the principal and board in April that they had retained a lawyer did the school move the special-needs pupil to a different classroom, but the threats and harassment continued, the claim says.

Olivia and her classmates were alleged to have been locked inside their classroom during instructional time while the student banged on the door, for example. Olivia also shut herself inside classrooms and lockers to avoid the pupil, the claims says.

The statement of claim says the TDSB and the school not only failed to provide a safe school environment for Olivia and Charlotte, but also did not put in place effective supports for students with special needs who have behavioural issues.

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Annie Kidder, executive director for advocacy group People for Education, said it is important to include all children in a regular classroom setting because research has shown the positive impact on learning. But schools also need to put in place appropriate resources, such as education assistants, she said.

"There is always a balance," Ms. Kidder said. "It's vital that kids are included, but it's also vital that all of the necessary supports are there."

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