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A hallway seen with children's bags and coats.
Parents of children with disabilities are often left with difficult choices about educational placements for their children. (Shutterstock)

The death of a child with a disability at an Ontario school urgently calls for government action

The recent death of an Ontario child with a disability while at school has reignited the debate about inclusive education.

The family of 16-year-old Landyn Ferris plans to launch a lawsuit after Ferris was allegedly left unattended in a padded room while he slept at his school in Trenton, Ont.

When checked on, Ferris was unresponsive. A family representative said the family had told the school he could have seizures and he needed to be properly supervised.

The Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board said a comprehensive review of procedures and processes is underway. In a statement, Stephen Lecce, then-education minister, said “The police and school board have launched an investigation into this incident, and I know all parties will work together to ensure this tragedy does not occur again.”

This situation has sparked outcries from advocates, including questions about the use of isolation rooms in schools and the safety and well-being of all students.

Including all children in neighbourhood schools

Thirty years ago, the world conference on special needs education — organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — met in Salamanca, Spain, to discuss the way forward to including all children in neighbourhood schools — in particular those identified with special education needs.

The result of this conference was the Salamanca Statement which indicates that regular schools with an inclusive orientation:

“… are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.”

At the 30th anniversary of the Salamanca Statement, professor of education Mel Ainscow provided a history of the discussion of inclusion since that time. He indicates it’s still what educational systems are striving for globally.

Make no mistake, inclusive education is the way forward. The countries that have higher levels of achievement tend to have lower levels of inequality in their schools. Further, inclusion benefits all students as well as teachers.

Parents face difficult choices

But how well is inclusive education as it tends to be practised serving the needs of children with special needs and their families? Unfortunately, as Ainscow points out, parents are often left with a difficult choice.

Many parents hear from schools that their child will not receive adequate support unless placed in a segregated setting. This option forces parents to choose a placement that doesn’t provide the same opportunities as other children in inclusive classrooms designed and resourced to support all children.


Read more: Every child matters: What principals need to effectively lead inclusive schools


Shortage of educators

The current shortage of educators in our schools is not helping the situation. The not-for-profit agency People for Education reports that 42 per cent of elementary school principals and 46 per cent of secondary school principals have daily shortages of teachers and educational assistants.

Shortened school days are an issue with children identified with special education needs often missing more than half their day at school.

The problems are real. The solutions are not as simple as adding more staff. They require the parents and the school working together.

CityNews video: Advocates demand answers after photo of school isolation room emerges.

Importance of relationships, belonging

Parent-school collaboration and the right of all children to receive an equitable education is essential. To succeed, it must be supported in both policy and practice.

In my research with colleagues, we interviewed parents of children with intellectual disabilities and found differences in parental experiences based on the relationships with people in the school. Parents shared that the educators that surrounded their children (educational assistants, teachers, principals) who believed that their child belonged were willing to find ways to support their learning and socialization.

What these parents shared was that once the mindset exists that all students belong and are valued members of the school community, schools figured out how to meet the needs of all children in the school.

Social connections matter

Research we conducted during the pandemic highlighted the importance of school collaboration. Parents who had good relationships and felt supported by the school prior to the pandemic continued to do so during school closures.

Although parents did not feel competent to teach their children at home, they felt capable as parents because of the previous social connections that had been achieved.


Read more: Coronavirus: Distance learning poses challenges for some families of children with disabilities


There is a power imbalance in the education system. Parents often feel stuck with the decisions of the school and if they want to change, they feel shut out and ostracized — they become “those parents” and adversarial situations arise.

Parent and school collaboration

How can schools and parents work together? Our work has synthesized the ideal practices related to mutual benefits.

In order to encourage collaboration, a school culture of trust needs to be built. At least at the outset of parents’ engagements with the school, parents believe that schools want what is best for their child and will act accordingly.

With good communication, built on trust, parents learn about the education of their children and educators learn more about the situation of the family. The research of professor of special education Zach Rossetti and colleagues notes that the key ways to ensure good outcomes is to focus on the strengths of the child and to work as a team in the school.

Tree seen growing in front of a school.
A focus on the strengths of each child is essential for fostering a welcoming and open school. (Shutterstock)

A welcoming and open school leads the way to shared decision making where parents are truly members of the team and not just people to be tolerated. There are many schools where parents are welcomed and valued, but there are not enough.

The UNESCO report Education in a Post-COVID world: Nine Ideas for Public Action “calls on policy makers to value the professional expertise of teachers and create conditions that give front-line educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.”


Read more: Solving teacher shortages depends on coming together around shared aspirations for children


Task force needed

Teachers are key. We must ensure that they have the training and support to work with all students and families. In addition, we must listen to the schools that are doing the work every day and discuss the solutions with them.

In my research, when speaking with advocates of inclusive education, the question is often asked whether it will take the death of a child to change our system. Sadly, that has happened. It is time for the government to call together a task force of educators, families and researchers to work toward a better solution of education for all.

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