The Toronto District School Board and an elementary school principal said they behaved like a "prudent parent" to protect two students, despite claims that the children faced repeated threats and assaults inflicted by a classmate with special needs.
In a statement of defence filed earlier this month in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the school board and the principal at John Wanless Junior Public School, at Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue West, denied allegations made in a lawsuit that they were negligent and did not do enough to keep two children – Olivia Warning, in Grade 3, and her sister Charlotte, who was in Grade 1 – safe from a special-needs pupil who had behavioural issues.
The lawsuit, which was launched by Olivia, Charlotte and their parents at the end of May, is unusual, and highlights the ongoing tensions in the education system between integrating children with special needs and ensuring a reasonably safe environment for everyone.
The statement of defence stated that the TDSB and the principal were aware of the "difficulties" caused by the child with special needs but acted responsibly and stepped in – speaking with the students and parents, providing more supervision and monitoring the children while at school.
"The defendants acted in a manner consistent with that of a careful or prudent parent and were at no time in breach of any duty, statutory or otherwise …," the statement of defence said.
The school board declined to elaborate on its position. "We deny the allegations. However, we cannot comment further on this case as it is still before the courts," spokesman Ryan Bird said.
None of the allegations in the lawsuit has been proved in court.
The Warning family said that not enough was done by the school or the TDSB, Canada's largest school board, to protect their daughters in the last academic year.
The statement of claim says 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.
The school brought in a special-needs assistant at one point, but the statement of claim said it did not stop the assaults and threatening behaviour. "Ultimately the special-needs assistant left the school after being assaulted by Student L," the claim said.
The lawsuit 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.
The TDSB and the principal moved the special-needs student out of Olivia's class only after the Warning family advised the board of its intention to sue. But according to the claim, the threats and harassment continued.
Justin Linden, the family's lawyer, said he was disappointed that the board's statement of defence lacked details.
"It's less than a detailed response. I really don't think it says much about much," he said. "In the process of the case, the facts will come out and ultimately be resolved by the court."
Mr. Linden said the lawsuit was necessary to bring attention to the issue and to keep the little girls safe.
"Until we got involved, in our view at least, proper steps weren't being taken to protect them," he said.