January 28, 2009
THE State Government and the Catholic Education Office are being dragged through the courts in at least 18 separate cases by disabled students who claim they have been neglected at school and lag far behind their peers.
At least 17 students, through their parents, are battling the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development or the Catholic Education Office in jurisdictions including the Federal Court, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
One family has launched action against both the Government and the Catholic system.
The high volume of cases is unprecedented and evidence that the Department of Education's program for students with a disability is inadequate, advocates said.
Access Law anti-discrimination consultant Julie Phillips said a large number of cases had been lodged in the past 18 months.
They relate to an alleged lack of support for students with disabilities in primary and secondary schools and should cause great concern in the community, she said.
"Parents are feeling so desperate that they are willing to take our Government to court and risk losing their houses and other assets — simply to get educational outcomes for their children," Ms Phillips said.
Cases before the Federal Court include that of 13-year-old Alex Walker, who is suing the Education Department for discrimination.
Alex, who has multiple disabilities, and his mother Paige Walker, allege he was not allowed to attend school full-time, was banned from school excursions and forced to return home for lunch.
The case of student Ross Vinton, 9, who suffered lead poisoning at his Seaford primary school, is before the Human Rights Commission.
Ross has an autism spectrum disorder and one of his behaviours, pica — the eating of non-foods — led him to eat flaky, lead-based paint from his school's walls while he was unobserved.
His mother Rosie Vinton claims the Department of Education failed to see his level of need, and his poisoning was the consequence, forcing him to miss six months of school.
Last year, the Government was ordered to pay more than $80,000 compensation to 16-year-old student Rebekah Turner, who has a severe language disorder and learning disability, when it was found the Education Department had failed to provide her with help.
In her decision, VCAT deputy president Cate McKenzie criticised the department over "serious shortcomings" in the program for students with disabilities.
The Government has since sought leave to appeal against the decision.
The Department of Education said it faced 12 cases in the Federal Court, Magistrates Court or VCAT, but was not able to provide information on other jurisdictions. It declined to comment on cases that were before the courts.
Catholic Education Office spokesmen declined to reveal the number of cases it was battling in the courts.