Full Report

Are BC Public Schools Forcing Students with Special Needs Out?

April 2015 Survey Results and Recommendations

The results of our parent survey are in and they clearly confirm what families and advocates have recognized for the past decade – the fiscal restraint in British Columbia public education has resulted in the loss of programs and services for students with special needs in public schools.  This ongoing restraint has had a significant impact on the mental health of children with special needs.  Many parents express a desire to remain in public schools, but fear the current system of “Inclusion” is so broken and underfunded that their child will end up damaged as a result.  Fundamentally, many children with special needs are prevented from exercising their human right to equitably access an education in public schools.

In a developed Province such as British Columbia, we all should be concerned that our current educational system can cause irreparable harm to self-esteem, along with PTSD and in some cases even thoughts of suicide for children with special needs.

What currently keeps you from removing your child from public education?

Fear of my emotional state deteriorating due to my son’s social and emotional difficulties.  Also my fear of not being organized enough to homeschool.  I also still hold out hope that traditional school will work, but that is looking less and less likely. – survey respondent

The resulting impacts to mental health lead many parents to choose, or feel forced, to remove their child with special needs from public schools.

Regardless of changes that may happen, we will not be returning to public school.  My son shows clear signs of trauma and has suspected PTSD due to his maltreatment at school. – survey respondent

Stories shared through the comments on this survey were concerning, moving, and varied, and yet throughout there was a common thread of inadequate attempts at Inclusion leading to damage to children’s self-esteem and mental health.

I pulled my son from public school because he came home crying nearly every day, and I was extremely concerned about his mental well-being.  He said he felt stupid and hated school.  I was not successful in getting the school to arrange for a Psych Ed assessment …  We are tapped out financially and cannot afford to continue to pay for further private education and the public schools are unable to adequately support him in the ways that he needs.  We are terribly disappointed in the public education system. – survey respondent

When we asked what currently keeps families from removing their child from public schools the overwhelming response was financial considerations.  Many families simply cannot afford to quit their jobs to have their children learn from home or to pay for private schools (many of which do not accept or screen out children with special needs).

Survey respondents said:

  • I am a single mom who works full time and doesn’t have any other options.
  • Resources, unable to quit work and teach her at home.
  • I’d have to quit my job.
  • I don’t have time to work and homeschool. Can’t afford to pay private school tuition.
  • Not sure I am cut out to homeschool. Can’t afford private school tuition.

Families should not have to choose between paying their bills and the deteriorating mental and emotional health of their child.  Public schools must provide access for all children to a public education.

About The Survey

Earlier this year, BC Business Magazine published an article titled “Why are so many parents opting out of B.C.’s renowned public schools?” (January 7, 2015).  This article rang true for so many of the parents and advocates in our group.  In February 2015, we decided to conduct a survey of our members to find out if they and their children were considering leaving public schools, and if they were leaving public schools, was this departure by choice or did they feel “forced out.”  But more importantly, we wanted to hear from them as to why they were contemplating alternatives to public schools and leaving.

Two surveys were developed – one for parents who had already removed their child from public schools and another for those who were considering alternatives to public schools.

The surveys were shared with our members.  We received a total of 236 responses over a 7-day period.  The information was collected by BC Parents of Special Needs Children – Action to Access for Equitable Education through a web-based survey.  Most parents of special needs children in public schools were never reached by the survey.  The intention was to give our members a platform to share their experiences and give credence to a serious issue that requires a response from the Ministry of Education.

Click here for a detailed infographic that shows all the results from our survey.

Survey Summary

  • Out of a total of 236 responses about half (51%) had removed their child from public education and of those, 31% indicated they had been forced out, while 18% said they chose to remove their child.
  • 39% of the total respondents were currently considering removing their child from public school.
  • The remaining respondents selected “other reasons” as their option (6%) or “they were not considering removing their child” (4%).
  • Of the respondents that have left public education the number one reason given (69%) was the deteriorating emotional health of their child (anxiety or depression) due to lack of support. This statement was also the number one reason given (60%) by the families who are considering leaving.
  • Reason number two (51%) for both groups of participants, those who have left and those considering it, was their child was not participating in academic or social activities due to lack of support.
  • Parents identified a number of areas where adequate support is lacking including:
    • Inadequate levels of Educational Assistants (Teacher Assistant, Special Education Assistant) support (45%), and a lack of Educational Assistants who are adequately trained to support their child’s specific needs (42%).
    • No access to specialized services that had been prescribed for their child such as Occupational/Physical Therapy and Speech/Language Therapy (44%)
    • Lack of following Individualized Education Plan (43%)

The survey also highlighted key topics and areas requiring attention and improvement for students with special needs.

  •  Assessment:

Parents stated that having their children’s educational needs properly assessed in order to plan appropriate supports was not available to them (36%).

  •  School Follow Through on Accommodation and Support:

Where assessments led to the development of an Individual Education Plan, the plan was not being followed (43%). 16% of parents responded that their child still does not have an Individual Education Plan in place (February of the school year). This informs us that the Ministry’s policy that says

A school board must offer each student who has special needs learning activities in accordance with the IEP designed for that student,

is not being realized for many students.

  • Systemic Needs:

When we asked those who were forced out about the areas they believe need to be improved  within the bricks-and-mortar public schools, in the majority of responses we heard: funding, training and support based on needs.  Survey respondents said:

  • I wish all special needs children had the support they need and deserve.
  • More funding so that every child could have access to the support they need.
  • For teachers/EAs to be better trained in working with children on the Autism Spectrum.
  • Teachers need more education on various learning disabilities.
  • Square pegs do not fit in round holes, neither do triangles, rectangles or many other shapes. They NEED to accommodate EACH CHILD.

Given the above statistics, it is little wonder that 20% of parents reported their child was regularly sent home from school early due to lack of adequate support, or that 22% of parents reported their child was placed on modified days (less than full day of school) due to lack of support to address his/her needs. As one parent stated,

I wish they would follow the policies as set out in the Ministry’s Special Education Policy Manual and meet my child’s educational needs so that he can attend public school.

It is not for lack of trying by these parents to work with schools to ensure their children’s needs are met. As one parent offered, summing up the feelings of many others,

We start with a ‘label’ on our child and end up getting one ourselves for advocating.

Parents report that the current appeals process is adversarial and unfairly biased in favour of the system. Parents raise concerns about the Ministry’s lack of accountability measures to ensure their children are receiving quality services at adequate levels.  What would be one wish you would have regarding services within public education?

Advocates’ office or tribunal that follows the Human Rights Code. – survey respondent

It comes as no surprise that of the parents who have removed their children from public schools, either by choice or because they felt they were forced to, the majority of them affirmed the statement:

I think I had no other choice but to remove my child from bricks and mortar school. I was forced out. – survey respondent


Why Is This Happening?

We believe the results of our survey indicate there is a growing systemic crisis in the ability of the Public School System to ensure our children’s Charter right to equitably access education. As our parents indicate in their comments there are many reasons why.

  • Lack of sufficient support at both the school level (educational assistants, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists) and the district level (psychological assessments, specialized programs for gifted students and those with learning disabilities).
  • Lack of trained personnel across all levels. Little to no knowledge on how to best support and teach students with learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD/ADD, sensory processing difficulties, mental health challenges.
  • Professional recommendations not being followed. When parents look to private professionals to have their child assessed those results are often ignored.
  • Ministry of Education policies and procedures for special education not being followed. Several parents indicated the process outlined for creation and implementation of the IEP as per Ministry policy was not followed.
  • Inadequate funding provided to school districts to meet the needs of all students. In many cases we have heard that those with the highest needs receive support while many others don’t receive any at all.

As stated by Faith Bodnar, Executive Director of Inclusion BC and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth in the Vancouver Sun October 2, 2014 Op/Ed titled “All children deserve quality education

Inclusion doesn’t mean parking children in a class without needed supports and expecting the teacher to meet their needs. It means providing nurturing classrooms that support every learner and offering specialist behavioural supports to assist teachers in making this work. Inclusion is not only a legal and moral obligation — it is best practice.


How Widespread Is the Problem?

Our membership and the respondents in our survey came from families all over British Columbia.  Furthermore, in late February we contacted four independent Distributed Learning (DL) schools (similar to home school, but with teacher support) within the province that enroll students with special needs. All four confirmed that they were at capacity for the 2014/2015 school year and had lengthy waitlists for the 2015/2016 school year.  One DL school had to stop taking names for September 2015 as they were concerned they would not be able to accommodate those already on their waitlist.

All of them told us that they were receiving several calls a week from parents of students currently in public schools and their stories were all the same – their child’s needs were not being met and the results were emotional and mental damage.

Another DL shared that in the 10 years since they first opened their doors to special needs students they have never had parents calling them before June for the upcoming school year.  This year the phone started ringing in November and has not stopped.

Our families know that their children with special needs are BC’s canaries in the education coal mine. These students are the most vulnerable and the first to show evidence of deeply concerning effects of a failing public school system.

What Needs to Be Done?

It is time that the Ministry of Education takes an in-depth look at the system’s ability to meet the needs of all the students under its mandate.

As stated by Faith Bodnar, Executive Director of Inclusion BC and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth in the Vancouver Sun October 2, 2014 Op/Ed titled “All children deserve quality education

The system needs to address the root causes of these practices — there are not enough appropriate, positive supports in schools, not enough trained and experienced individuals working with children with special needs, accountable to them and their caregivers. Regular auditing and reporting on completion of Individual Education Plans, outcomes and measures of achievement needs to be implemented to demonstrate what supports B.C. children are actually receiving.

  1. Appointment of an Independent Advocate for students with special needs with a similar mandate to that of the Representative for Children and Youth.
  2. The Ministry of Education to review all school district budgets to ensure that any budgetary reductions to programs and services for students with special needs are proportionate to those made to regular education programs to ensure equity is established.
  3. The Ministry of Education to undertake a Needs Assessment of special education programs and services in all BC school schools districts to determine if sufficient resources are being provided at adequate levels to achieve the goals of inclusion and meet the Charter and human rights of students with special needs.
  4. The Ministry of Education to provide funding for school districts to deliver in-service training for key special education personnel and support staff.
  5. The Ministry of Education to make it a requirement that specialist staff for learning assistance and resource/learning support positions have the qualifications now only recommended in the Ministry’s Special Education Policy Manual.
  6. The Ministry of Education to fund and require school districts to provide a full continuum of programs and services to meet the needs of all students with special needs.
  7. Creation of an exit questionnaire for parents who remove their children from public school so that investigations into whether or not needs where being met can pinpoint trends and identify shortfalls.
  8. The Ministry of Education must require School Districts to track when students are sent home early during the day that includes if the student is special needs and the reason why.
  9. The appointment of an independent professional (e.g., Special Education Ombudsperson) with related expertise to adjudicate disputes where parents say there is a lack of adequate and/or appropriate support and/or services provided to their child.
  10. The Ministry of Education to conduct random “quality audits” looking at IEPs to ensure appropriate services are offered at adequate levels and the student is making progress.
  11. The Ministry of Education will consult with parents who have children with special needs to develop a Parent Satisfaction Survey to be distributed to all parents who have children with special needs across the province.

As Madam Justice Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada found in Moore v. British Columbia (Education):

Adequate special education… is not a dispensable luxury… it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.

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7 thoughts on “Full Report”

  1. Pingback: Press Release – New survey shows kids with special needs being forced to leave public education. - Autism Daily Newscast

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  3. •Lack of sufficient support at both the school level (educational assistants, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists) and the district level (psychological assessments, specialized programs for gifted students and those with learning disabilities).

    Just as an FYI, OTs and SLPs are DISTRICT staff. They are not assigned to individual schools to support specific students like EAs, nor are they members of the same union as EAs. They often have 6-20+ schools on their caseload, much like psychologists. They are often members of the same union as psychologists. And ideally they would support those specialised programs for students with language based LDs too (again, at the district level).

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  7. Pingback: Considering Leaving the System – BCEdAccess

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