Dear Minister Casey,
It’s me, Charlene, again. I know, I know, you are really busy right now with the whole Teacher’s Strike thing… you don’t really have time to read and respond to another one of my letters. But I do have a few more things to say since the last time I wrote, and it seems that now might be a good time to say them, as you are scratching your head trying to figure out how the teacher’s contract negotiations went sideways.
I don’t know how much experience you, your department staff, your policy researchers, or the fancy consultants you hire, have with neurodivergent individuals, so I ask you to indulge me a little while I run down some of the key issues that the “experts” I know are talking about. The experts I am referring to, of course, are the parents and neurodivergent individuals themselves… the ones you never seem to listen to, despite the fact that they often offer free advice and expertise.
- The Physical Environment – One of the things about neurodivergent students is that they have different sensory filters. That is, they see, hear, smell, taste and feel things differently. For some, these issues are Hyper – they see, hear, smell, taste and feel things too intensely; and for some they are Hypo- they don’t see, hear, smell. taste or feel things enough. Flourescent lights, loud noises, over-crowded halls, concrete floors, uncomfortable chairs, fire alarms, air filtration, other students voices… these are all characteristics of the traditional public school which can actually send some neurodivergent students into “meltdown”. Where some teachers and school staff are scratching their head saying, “I have no idea what set him off” not noticing that the light was flickering ever so slightly, or the air conditioning was humming in a way that set off a neurological storm in a student’s head. My youngest is a bit of an emapth, absorbing all the emotional energy in the room as well as being hypersensitive to environmental triggers… so even the unseen tension and frustration of those around him an set him off.
- The Learning Centre – The Learning Centre tried to compensate for the issues noted above. While it may have been working when there were only 5 or 6 neurodivergent students per school, we are now facing diagnosis numbers that have more than tripled in most schools. The whole concept of the Learning Centre was to provide special needs students with the individualized curriculum and quiet space they require to learn. However, today, where there are upwards of 30 students per school who require such a specialized environment, all with their own bundles of issues, it is not working anymore. For example, my oldest, who is somewhat autistic savant and quite brilliant when it comes to memorizing things and calculating numbers, came home on his first day of high school with a dot-to-dot. When I asked the Learning Centre teacher why he was doing work designed for a Preschooler, she told me that there were 28 children in her Learning Centre, and that they were all at different levels, so he was doing work at a level consistent with them. Another example is with my youngest, who can be loud and unruly, where his, turrets-like vocalizations can disrupt and have negative impacts on the students in his Learning Centre who are sensitive to loud noises.
- Actual Education – One of the primary functions of the education system is to prepare young people for the workforce; to provide them with skills and knowledge so that they can continue on their life journey after they leave the insulated walls of their community schools. But for neurodivergent students, their day at school is not about education, it is about behaviour management and busy work. They do colouring pages, and remain unchallenged intellectually because it is believed that they will never be able to get a job anyway… They are pushed through and graduate because they were able to make forced eye contact and write their names on a piece of paper. At least you allow them to stay in the school system after they graduate until they turn 21, because you know that there is not much hope for them outside the school walls…
- Staff changes – When you are the parents of a special needs students, you learn very quickly about union contracts with Learning Centre staff and Educational Program Assistants (EPAs). Neurodivergent students often require consistent and predictable routines, which includes those people working with them. It takes a long time to get to know how neurodivergent individuals think and learn; to understand their behaviour and the functions of that behaviour, especially those individuals who do not speak and process language in the same way as everyone else. It takes a long time to build trust and find a good EPA fit for each autistic individual; and when that fit is found, there should be options for EPAs to stay with those students throughout their school career. Not to mention that when they get to high school, they have to rotate around 5-6 different classrooms, each with different teachers who they have to adapt to, and who have to adapt to them… this is one of those systemic problems we hear so much about.
- EPAs – While we are on the topic of EPAs, can you answer me a question: how is it that the staff hired to work with neurodivergent individuals only have to have a high school education to get the job? No training or experience working with people who sometimes have intense psychological and behavioural issues required. No community college degree, no diploma or certificate to have them consistently trained. Some EPAs having a history of bad behaviour themselves not being screened out. And no consistency in communication practices between them and parents. They aren’t included in the child’s IPP development, they don’t come to the meetings, and in some cases I’ve heard, not even ALLOWED to talk to parents about their child’s day. And how do you determine allocation of EPAs? Why do some parents have to fight for 100% coverage while others are shared among 5 or 6 students. EPAs are the most important staff members in the education system, yet they are not treated as such.
- Protection and Safety – You know as well as I do Minister Casey, that if all of the stories involving neurodivergent individuals being put at risk, or worse, actively being abused by staff in the school system, came to light in the media and public eye, you would have a whole lot of splainin’ to do. In most cases, parents are not even made aware of investigations into to alleged abuse by staff until after the school boards complete their investigations (if at all). Police are not involved in these investigations, although Child Protection Services often are. This is especially troubling for parents of students who cannot speak for themselves, who are also not involved in the investigations… imagine, being assaulted by someone with no attempt to ask you what happened, and no way for you to communicate the trauma you had suffered.
So, while you and your government play politics with the future of Nova Scotia students, neurodiverse and otherwise, I would just like to remind you that there are way more issues here than simply resources and support. And while I know that my concerns about the public education system can not, and will not be addressed through your contract negotiations with the NSTU, I wanted to let you know, once again, how your Education system is failing, and sometimes traumatizing neurodivergent students.
I know this is just the portfolio your party has saddled you with to make sure you get that cushy Minister’s salary, so in some ways I sympathize with you. How on earth can you be expected to solve some of these complex issues which put students and staff at risk and provide very little future options for them after they graduate. That is why I reach out to you once in a while to remind you that there are intelligent, articulate, creative out here who can help. If only you would listen.
Thank you for taking the time out of your office administrator’s schedule to read this letter, I look forward to the copy and paste response going out to all of the parents who have been contacting you lately. I will also be posting this letter on my blog and sharing around Facebook. Hopefully it will reach the 20,000 or so people who read my last one, which was my opinion of the strike vote.