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Letters to the Editor Jan. 8: Is it fair to put kids with complex needs in a regular class? Letter writers enter the debate

Second grader Grayson Kahn, with his mother, Lisa: Grayson, who has autisim, was expelled from his school after he struck an educational assistant.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Letters to the Editor should be exclusive to The Globe and Mail. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. Try to keep letters to fewer than 150 words. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. To submit a letter by e-mail, click here: letters@globeandmail.com

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Reading Grayson’s story felt like I was reading my own (Educating Grayson, Jan. 5; Autism Advocates Push Ontario To Ban School Exclusions, Jan. 7). I have three kids. They are funny, clever, kind and resilient. They also struggle. Without support, they can become overwhelmed or get anxious. Behaviour is often the only way they can express themselves. Fears of expulsion define my days.

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Parent complaints mean my kids aren’t allowed on the playground. They must prove they belong – a test they often fail, because they don’t have the supports they need to be successful.

We must stop questioning “if” inclusive education works and invest in making it work. When it’s not working, it’s because we aren’t doing it well. Teachers lack practical strategies; educational assistants are undersupported. We need to redirect resources for segregated programs to strengthen inclusive systems. Families shouldn’t have to litigate our way through the classroom door. We need an education system that values and includes all children.

Anna MacQuarrie, Halifax

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Most students learn best in an environment that is orderly, safe and quiet (or, realistically, quietish). A student exhibiting disruptive behaviour for any reason is not learning anything productive; chances are, neither are their classmates. If the behaviour turns violent (which happens more regularly than most people would like to think), other students are often evacuated while trained adults try to calm the student exhibiting the problem behaviour.

Not only have the evacuated students lost learning time, but often more time needs to be taken to debrief students who return to the classroom angry, scared, distracted or overly pumped up by what they just witnessed. So much attention is focused on one student’s negative behaviour, but rarely on the negative effects it has on others in the class, as well as the school as a whole.

Whether disruptive behaviour arises from autism or some other cause, if a student isn’t learning successfully in a regular classroom environment, then an alternative solution – e.g. a self-contained classroom which may or may not be at the student’s local school, part-time attendance, an individualized behaviour-modification plan – may be suggested.

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While advocating on behalf of their child, parents need to fairly consider recommendations from the collective group of education professionals – teachers, principals, superintendents, psychologists, special-education consultants, speech and language pathologists, etc. – who are familiar with the education system’s limitation, yet still are among a family’s best hopes to help a child achieve success at school.

Nancy Hill, Hamilton

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Paul Bennett is right that “The system is not built to accommodate the range of diversity we now have in our school system.” That is precisely because it is set up as a discriminatory system, built for non-disabled people. The real issue is: Are school boards failing students with disabilities?

Articles about inclusive education focus on how the regular classroom doesn’t work for students, disabled or otherwise. But they don’t explore how the special-ed classroom is equally, if not more so, a failure for the disabled.

Smaller classes with only the disabled in them don’t make for better outcomes. These spaces are often much more about daycare than learning. Special-education classrooms largely solve problems for the parents of the non-disabled. They do not do very much for the disabled, however.

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Paula Boutis, Toronto

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My child has different challenges and we live in a different province, but we have had the same experience of being asked to pick up our child midday and being told our child can only be in school for partial days. It is shocking how widespread (and largely undocumented) this exclusion from school is for kids with exceptionalities.

Today’s children are growing up in a very different world than children even a generation ago. Perhaps the way we train teachers and the environments of our classrooms (to a large extent, unchanged since the 19th-century models of modern education) need a critical look. The question should not be whether we should adopt an inclusive approach to education, but how we will do it.

Yolanda Wiersma, St. John’s

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“Nature has put the mental defective in a class by himself, we had better take the hint.” Canadian physician and eugenicist Helen MacMurchy wrote those words in 1919. Special education was new, with the classes that boards in Toronto and Vancouver founded in 1910 still not a decade old.

As an historian, I have studied the inclusion debate that has existed in one form or another for more than a century. Thankfully, we do not use terms like “mental defective” any longer. Exceptional students are considerably better educated and accommodated than they were in MacMurchy’s day. However, some things have not changed. The debate over placement – whether exceptional children belong in a class by themselves, or should be educated with everyone in inclusive settings – is as alive in 2019 as in 1919.

What we learn from history is that, when it comes to placement, rigid special-education policies fail. Children should have the maximum placement options possible. If parents want an inclusive placement, they should have it. If, like Jeffrey Moore’s parents, they want a separate special-education program, they should have that option. They shouldn’t have to go to the Supreme Court to have their right to choose affirmed. If we realize that the age-old placement debate cannot be totally resolved, and are flexible and reasonable, we can succeed in accommodating and educating every child.

Jason Ellis, assistant professor, history of education, University of B.C.; author, A Class By Themselves?

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I knew two women with autistic sons and the immense efforts they made. The first, besides making major home adjustments for her child, visited churches appealing for volunteers to give her preschooler the necessary one-on-one care, so she could continue in her needed employment. She required almost 24/7 assistance, and trained a roster of volunteers who became a constant presence in the family home.

In the second instance, the father had died; the mother quit her job, arranged accommodation for the other children, and went with her son to live (and work) in a city 300 miles away where he could receive appropriate care.

Grayson appears to need specific care in a specialized facility. Trying to accommodate him in the current setting has resulted in a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario that benefits no one. The inclusive education model is not serving either Grayson or his classmates. Will it serve others?

Maughan Brooke, Victoria

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I am most willing to support difficult behaviours in the classroom if, as a society, we collect the taxes needed to hire the required staff so assistants and teachers aren’t subject to behaviours such as blows from students resulting in “bruises, scrapes and a concussion.” This will cost money, and I accept that my tax bill should rise.

(For the record, I don’t and haven’t had anyone in the school system whose behaviour required special intervention.)

Jane Moore, Toronto

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