Ontario’s Education System in Crisis: Proactive Change Needed in Youth and Education Services
As a parent with a non-verbal autistic kid, one of my worst nightmares is to have to deal with a teacher that isn't qualified to ensure the care of my child. We've been pretty lucky. The teachers and staff taking care of my son in the school system are extremely caring, professional and have been a huge support for my family. The vast majority of the education system is like this, however there seems to be a growing concern in Ontario's school system when issues with bad apples arise, and with developing meaningful policy at the provincial level to insert accountability in order to deal with these bad apples. Ontario faces quite a few bad apples.
Last month CBC's marketplace did a special on problem teachers. CBC has found that in Ontario, teachers who have been found of misconduct continue to teach for years until the College of Teachers gets involved in dealing with stripping those teachers of their license to teach. In one case, an Ontario teacher was found to have been sending suggestive sexual messages to the kids in his class. It took 4 years for the complaints to reach the College of Teachers which allowed this teacher to continue his behavior thus increasing the amount of victims of it, and later he moved to a different country to skirt accountability, where he is still teaching. What's worse is that teachers found of misconduct are often "recycled" to different schools until matters can be heard years later at the College of Teachers allowing for more abuse to continue and increasing the number of victims of abuse.
For me as a parent, let alone one with a non-verbal ASD kid, this is unacceptable. If a teacher is found abusing kids with special needs, they are continued to be allowed to teach. The strength of the education lobby is of great concern in this province. Too often than not, parents voices are drowned out by powerful unions and school boards during committee and policy processes. When complaints arise from parents in the system, this lobby more often than not, dismisses any concerns from parents, often bullying them with threatening behavior to protect their own interests rather than those of kids.
Remember that parent that vented out on facebook? The facebook post went viral about her special needs child being ordered to do over 80 crunched in one day. Mindbendingpolitics as learned the York Region District School Board did their investigation into the matter. They completely exonerated the teacher of any wrong doing, and blamed the child for lying due to issues at home. The parents called in the Children's Aid Society to investigate which found the teacher was guilty of misconduct but no child protection issues in which they could legally intervene. With the current situation this teacher will be allowed to teach other special education students for years to come. The York board in this current case is also refusing to provide transportation to this special needs child to her new school further adding stress to this family as a result of coming forward with their concerns.
Granted that not all teachers are bad, but the few that are, are being protected by their unions and boards and recycled to different schools. Parents concerns are often set by the way-side and bullied into silence. This is creating an epidemic of child abuse in our school system in Ontario as a result, and should not be tolerated by our law makers.
Youth advocates for years have been fighting to make the system better and more accountable only to find unions and school boards hijacking policy too further protect their own interests over that of even basic human rights. Politicians for the most part gladly oblige due to political donations. An example of this I followed was through the introduction of two pieces of legislation in 2012. Bill 13, and Bill 14 which had to do with creating a safe environment for our kids. After heavy lobbying by youth advocates, the Ontario PC's adopted a bill with a lot of recommendations to define issues such as bullying, and accountability of schools and government to ensure our kids remain safe bill 13. The Liberals supported by the NDP introduced their own legislation Bill 14. As a youth advocate it was nice to see non-partisan support for keeping our kids safe, but a close inspection of both bills revealed a lot of union influence with a lot of anger from parents. This spilled onto the committee floor with parents testifying regarding their concerns. Particularly from Owen Sound parent Joe Grieco who testified in 2012:
"Having carefully looked over both bills, we have grave concerns that, although there appears to be a desire to reduce the impact of bullying in Ontario, the proposed additions and amendments to the Education Act are not comprehensive enough and will not lead to the necessary outcome: safer schools, safer students and improved learning success for all Ontario students."
What’s even worse is that after bill 14 became law and new money flowed into the system to keep our kids safe, the Ministry of Education in 2014 felt it necessary to divert $1.6 million allocated to safe schools and autism services to protect school boards across the province from a lawsuit. All the work to keep our kids safe and previous efforts by autism advocates was pretty much to help fund the Ministry of Educations slush account for school boards and unions.
Fast forward to 2016 - youth advocates are again engaged over the debate of autism and safe schools funding. I've approached York Region District School Board a month ago to find what programs are in place to ensure student safety, and requested a breakdown of the boards budget to show money flowing to each school and what programs that money is being spent on. I was told this would be provided to me. Now the board is stating that information isn't available to the general public due to "confidentiality" reasons.
As recently as February, the York Region District School Board was called out by the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner for not collecting important data too target social programs in schools. I have to question even the existence of safe schools programs in York Region as a result. The board has been unable to provide any information detailing these programs, when this information and break down presumably should be publicly available via the boards website as it relates to the boards budget.
The province has recently stripped needed support to autism services in Ontario. This as prompted concerns from the province's youth advocate Irwin Elman on what impact this will have on the school system, stating:
"One also has to question how the school system will fit into this plan. How is the role of the school and the classroom integrated into plans for service to the school-aged children? Parents of children with “special needs” know that the gap between the promise of the school system and the child’s lived experience at school is a chasm. The Ministry of Education also appears absent from this important discussion."
Enter the teacher unions and school boards. The NDP has been leading the fight with autism services in Queens Park. Members of the NDP are showing a tremendous amount of passion (even members of the party being ejected from question period) to bring forth concerns to Wynne's autism policy. The biggest financial donor of the NDP is the Ontario Secondary Schools Federation, who has donated more than $249,350 to the party over the past 3 years. I have to question whether this passion for parents concerns is legitimate, or an attempt to politically position their top financial donors at the front of the line with the applause of parents when discussions inevitably turn to the education system. I have concerns over not just current funds but any future funds allocated to autism services in the education system as a result, and whether they will actually reach kids, while parents groups applaud the efforts of these unions and boards.
The Ontario Autism Coalition has been a great support for parents in this political battle; however this organization has been actively seeking the support of teachers unions and boards. When questioning Bruce McIntoish (one of the lead advocates for the coalition) on policy, McIntosh suggested that Policy Program Memorandums (PPMs) be modified to ensure ABA services in the education system.
PPM's are essentially non-binding statements and as independent youth advocate and founder of the York Region Anti-bullying coalition Karen Sebben stated in an interview with mindbendingpolitics:
"The language used in PPM's are vague and open ended. It creates the illusion that the Ministry of Education is pro-active." Sebben continued, "The language used is for the sole purpose of continuing to allow administrative discretionary measures, lack of transparency and continued autonomy."
What's even more horrifying is the fact that these unions appear to have infiltrated a parent led movement, which now is restating support for the very cause of the issues present in the education system. That is that we have to protect union members in order to protect our kids, when it is precisely that situation that is creating an in balance and lack of accountability.
We need accountability injected into this system as a result of the amount of protection union members and boards currently enjoy. The lack of accountability is creating an environment where money isn't reaching our kids to ensure their education is a safe one, to ensure human rights and dignity of our most venerable are being protected, to ensure that kids with special needs get the proper education by qualified staff and thugs are fired rather than recycled.
It’s not just one political party to blame for this. It’s all of them. There may be a need now as a result to have the Ombudsman or Auditor General reappear on these files to inject that accountability, since advocates and parents voices are continually being drowned out regarding the problems our school system and youth face and a lack of concrete systemic solutions being presented due to heavy lobbying efforts by these unions and school boards.
Parents seeking meaningful change should focus their support on independent youth advocates rather than union lead parent movements. When you make a deal with the devil, you always set yourself up for failure, and I think the current problems the education system faces is representative of too many bad deals made with groups who have no intention in being held accountable for anything, and will do whatever they need too, to ensure that continues. Balance needs to be restored, and a massive injection of accountability ordered to ensure our youth have the right to proper, safe and enjoyable learning experiences, and the services they need.