The Hamilton Spectator
Dad says teenage son with FASD fell through the cracks of the public education system.
NEWS 04:00 AM [on April 9, 2019]
by Natalie Paddon The Hamilton Spectator
Jeff Gowland is suing the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for not providing adequate resources to his seventeen-year-old son who suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. – Scott Gardner,The Hamilton Spectator
Seventeen-year-old James Gowland does not have formal grades beyond Grade 6 and does not have any friends.
His father says this is because the public education system has failed James, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The Dundas teenager wanted to be treated “normally” and put in a class where he could make friends, said Jeff Gowland.
But James, who will be 18 this summer, hasn’t attended school this year, and his dad doesn’t see him going back.
“You can make all the changes you want, but he’s not wanting to go anymore because you let him … slide through the cracks and he disappeared,” Gowland said.
James’ case illustrates the challenges of educating a population of children with special needs, ranging from FASD, to autism, to Down syndrome.
There are more than 12,500 students receiving special needs services in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, representing 26 per cent of total enrolment, according to a 2017 auditor general report.
Accommodations are made for students in consultation with parents and can include changes to environment, instruction and assessment, said public school board superintendent of specialized services Peggy Blair.
The board provides services and supports in a child’s home school “as often as possible,” but sometimes turns to other options, including special classes and educational support staff, according to its website.
In James’ case, special needs programs, regular classrooms, an educational assistant and work placements were all tried, but nothing seemed to work, begging the question: Is inclusive education working? And if not, what happens to kids like James?
Gowland, who said he was told James is a “safety risk” given past outbursts, wanted his son to try classes he’s passionate about — like auto — instead of being shut down because of potential risks.
School board officials said they can’t comment on James’ case, but Blair said they must balance a student’s right to learn with ensuring a safe environment.
Gowland said James has punched walls to release tension, but has never attacked anyone.
Since being diagnosed with FASD in Grade 6, James has bounced between a variety of classrooms and programs.
For a time, he sat in a room off the school library alongside an educational assistant where he did paperwork every day, his dad said.
Most recently, he attended an alternative learning program through the school board at the public library, which he loved. But that fell apart because James needs structure, and the program only ran for two hours once a week. After the summer break, Gowland couldn’t get him to return because he had fallen out of the necessary routine.
He also worried about what would happen if James had an outburst and started swearing and yelling, given the program is held in a public space.
“We’ve literally just stopped fighting,” Gowland said. “It’s not worth the argument.”
“He’s going to create problems,” he added.
Now at almost 18, James has pretty much thrown in the towel on a formal education, his dad said.
He said his son became fed up after feeling like he was never listened to despite doing what was asked of him.
“He said, ‘Dad, I want to be normal … I want to be in classrooms with my friends, I don’t want to be isolated, I want to take shop,’ and nothing happened,” Gowland said.
James started to show signs of FASD around middle school when the structure of school changed, requiring students to move from class to class, said Gowland.
The challenges became more apparent in Grade 7 when James was moved to a special needs class in a new school. Within the span of a year, Gowland said his son went through three teachers and three principals.
At times throughout his schooling, James was classified as “uncontrollable,” and his parents were often called to pick him up.
As part of its annual survey, People for Education, an organization to support and advance public education, started asking principals if they have asked parents to keep their children home for all or part of the day after hearing about the issue intermittently.
In 2017/18, 58 per cent said “yes,” noted executive director Annie Kidder.
“The No. 1 reason is safety,” she said.
Before the end of his Grade 8 year, James was sent to a special needs class at his local high school because his elementary school didn’t know how to deal with him, Gowland said.
This set James back, Gowland said, because he was isolated, away from the school’s general population and assigned tasks such as collecting blue boxes.
Blair from the board said, generally, schools have conversations with parents about options, and once a student is placed in a program, they are reviewed at least annually to see how they are doing.
Jacqueline Specht is the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University.
She pointed to a recent report on inclusive education called “If Inclusion Means Everyone Why Not Me?” — a collaboration between Community Living Ontario, Western University, Brock University, ARCH Disability Law Centre, Brockville and District Association for Community Involvement and Inclusive Education Canada — in which research showed students being excluded in both special and regular classes.
“It tells me something’s not working regardless,” she said.
By Grade 10, James’ days were being shortened so he could avoid the commotion of other students coming and going.
The late arrival and early dismissal helped, but the school’s size still brought “too much stimulus” for James, Gowland said.
While he wanted to take auto, school staff worried the smells and noise of the shop area might be too much for him, he said.
Gowland said he offered to attend the class with his son but was told he couldn’t because it could set a precedent for other students.
In order for James to participate in after-school activities like basketball and football, Gowland said he was told he would have to come into the school.
“Everything was ‘He can’t, he can’t, he can’t,'” he said. “I was, at this point, starting to get tired of the word ‘No.'”
Gowland said he was turned down when he offered to speak at an assembly about FASD so students would understand what James was dealing with and might take his disability into account.
James never finished his Grade 11 year and instead was sent assignments to complete at home.
Gowland said ultimately he would like James to have a special needs class tailored to his needs.
He pointed to a program in Waterloo Region specifically for students with FASD, which he was told isn’t an option locally.
While a couple of boards in the province have these classes, HWDSB has staff who are “continually learning” about FASD to support schools, said Blair.
It’s not about funding, she noted, but about the board’s model.
Blair stressed the importance of co-operation between home and school in finding a plan that works for students.
She stressed it’s important parents reach out if they feel they need more information or are not being helped.
“I think the parent should say, ‘I’ve been involved with a lot of people, but I feel like someone needs to own this for my child,'” she said.
Specht said problems arise in the education system when the focus is on finding a place where a child fits instead of creating an environment that works for the child.
“It’s not about trying to fit a child to an environment,” she said. “Inclusion is about helping the environment fit the needs of the child.”
“All our research shows inclusion is much better for all students, not just kids with disabilities,” she later added.
Life for the family, who adopted James at 3 and his brother — who was diagnosed with an intellectual disability — is about finding ways to keep the teenager busy and out of trouble.
While he finds people to chum around with, he doesn’t have close friends — relationships Gowland believes James should have had the opportunity to develop through school.
Specht said it’s not surprising kids moved to different classes and programs have a hard time creating friendships, especially if they have challenges.
“To me, our schooling is about trying to prepare our kids for the world,” she said. “If we just keep moving kids around because they don’t behave properly then they’re not getting prepared.”
James wants to be a mechanic.
He wants to work and make money. But, realistically, who will hire him without the necessary social skills and experience, his dad asks.
“He’s got no formal education, but even in the real world, who’s going to take the time to take this boy on, to work with him, to mentor him, to in a sense watch and babysit him,” Gowland said.
“He’s walked away with nothing,” he later added. “That’s the worst part about it.”
905-526-2420 | @NatatTheSpec