Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
Earlier this month, news circulated about a Grade 1 student at a midtown Toronto school who, after hitting a fellow student, was allegedly detained for several hours in a small room next to the principal’s office.
The Toronto District School Board placed the school’s principal, vice-principal and the student’s teacher on home assignment while it investigates the case. It will be a while before there is clarity on what actually happened, and whether anti-Black racism played a role, as the student’s mother alleges. But what this case has already exposed is the uphill battle that schools are waging to accommodate, support and educate their students.
The banner of inclusion that the public education system has operated under for the past half century is tattered beyond repair. While the fundamental human right to an education is undisputable, the system has yet to figure out how to deliver that education fairly and safely to the huge swath of students – including every behavioural, communicational, intellectual and physical exceptionality – that lands in its classrooms.
The strongest evidence for inclusion’s failure comes from Alberta where, as the CBC recently reported, the use of seclusion rooms in schools is on the rise. Seclusion rooms are sequestered, locked spaces where students who are deemed a risk to themselves or others can be forcefully detained. Banned by Alberta’s NDP government in 2018, they were reintroduced by the UCP in 2019. Since the pandemic, their use has steadily grown; in the past academic year, Albertan schools reported 6,059 cases of confinement in them.
It’s hard to find a child psychologist who believes that they achieve their stated purpose: to calm a child down. Steve Hall, an Ontario-based consultant who offers crisis management and intervention training to school boards, calls seclusion rooms a “sad and terrible practice” that retraumatizes children and engenders fear, which often rekindles anger.
For Mr. Hall, the solution is simple: properly trained staff who can de-escalate situations before they get out of control. But that represents a much bigger investment than an upright plywood box with locks on the outside. It’s no coincidence that Alberta, the only province in Canada to use seclusion rooms, also boasts the country’s lowest level of per-student funding.
Of course, inclusion means much more than damage mitigation. It’s about providing support to all students who, for whatever reason, don’t conform to the system’s norms and expectations. This is not a tiny minority. Of the 600-odd students attending my son’s middle school in Toronto, 125 have been assigned Independent Education Plans, meaning they require behavioural or academic supports beyond what is typically offered in the classroom. They may be new to Canada, or have learning disorders, mental-health challenges or physical limitations. The school currently has two educational assistants to meet those kids’ needs.
The success of inclusion rests on an army of human supports – educational assistants, special education staff, ESL and child and youth workers – that has been felled by a combination of attrition and underfunding. According to the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, the union representing the TDSB’s elementary teachers, there are currently an average of 1.73 special education support staff and 0.2 education assistants for every 1,000 elementary students.
The consequences of this understaffing range from the not-so-benign neglect of students who don’t “work well” in the classroom – the lone desk in the hall where my nonconforming son spent much of his Grade 1 year – to physical violence. The Waterloo Region District School Board recently reported a more than doubling in the number of violent incidents – spitting, hitting, punching – directed mainly at educational assistants and child and youth workers over the past year. Well-adjusted students just looking to learn are caught idling in the middle.
The sense of a system that is losing control is affirmed by the results of a survey conducted in January by the Toronto School Administrators Association, which represents principals and vice-principals in the TDSB. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents reported feeling unequipped to maintain school safety because of insufficient financial resources and staffing. Over a third said they were confronted with student violence on a regular basis.
This isn’t what education is supposed to be about. Inclusion is an admirable and ambitious goal which, with the right supports, can work beautifully. The most moving moment of my son’s graduation from elementary school came when his classmate, a boy with non-verbal autism, crossed the stage to receive his diploma and the entire auditorium of kids rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation. But as those supports fall away, so too do the success stories and the lofty dream of inclusion risks turning into a nightmare of seclusion and system failure.