By bobb | Fri, 28/8/2009 - 10:43

Justine Ferrari, Education writer | August 26, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

SCHOOLS are turning children with disabilities into part-time students by restricting their attendance hours in breach of anti-discrimination laws.

Some school principals are limiting the time disabled students are in class to match the hours a teacher's aide or other assistance is available, Macquarie and Sydney university researchers have found.

The study, based on surveys with principals in mainstream schools in city and rural areas of NSW, identified several practices that breach education and anti-discrimination laws.

The breaches included negotiating with parents to limit a child's attendance, sending children directly to doctors to obtain a diagnosis without parental approval and pressuring parents to enrol their children in other schools or support classes.

The study also highlights the subjective nature of labelling children with behavioural problems -- responsible for a rise in the number of students with disabilities. One principal was quoted as saying: "Well, a behaviour problem at (this school) would be a child who just doesn't do what he's told."

Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graham Innes said the practice -- which advocacy workers confirmed occurred routinely in schools -- was in breach of the act.

The study, presented earlier this year by Macquarie University academic Linda Graham at a conference of the American Educational Research Association, highlighted the case of a six-year-old boy whose days at school were reduced after the principal entered into a private negotiation with his parents.

"We had a little boy in Year 1 who absolutely refused to do what he was told," the principal is quoted as saying. "We came to an agreement that every Tuesday and Thursday, (the boy) stayed at home ... and he only came (to school) Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"We could only get funding for a maximum three days, no matter how bad he was, so that left us in limbo for two days."

Mr Innes said he had received similar complaints and the Disability Discrimination Act required schools to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate students with disabilities, ranging from technology or ramps to teachers aides and sign language interpreters.

"The availability of time of a teacher's aide shouldn't determine whether or not a kid is at school," he said. "A child should be at school and receiving an education unless there's a valid educational reason not to be there, such as going to another facility or school. On the face of it, it's a breach of the law."

Julie Phillips from Melbourne's Disability Discrimination Legal Service said the practice was routine in Victoria and she was aware of similar problems in Queensland and NSW.

The Victorian Education Department is fighting a Federal Court action brought by a 13-year-old boy -- who suffers autism, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder -- over its failure to provide him with a full-time education.

Family Advocacy, a NSW disability advocacy organisation, said the practice had been widespread in NSW but the state education department had clamped down in recent years.

However, a spokeswoman, Belinda Epstein-Frisch, said schools still commonly persuaded parents to take their children elsewhere.

"There are many messages that can be given to a parent to say the school feels they don't have the knowledge, skills or resources to include a child," she said.


I wrote to the editor today ...

Dear editor

Justin Ferrari, in Schools telling disabled children to stay at home (Aug 26) suggested a study "identified several practices that breach education and anti-discrimination laws". While the practices may be contrary to various policies, it is unlikely that they breach Australian law. In most cases, a school could cite the Purvis vs NSW decision of the Federal High Court which allows any (and every) school to exclude a student over concerns about how that student might behave. The Federal High Court says such exclusions do not "breach education and anti-discrimination laws". Students with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders are often seen to pose significant risk of dysfunctional behaviour, so our laws do not protect them. I hope the Disability Discrimination Commissioner knows of this aspect of Australian law.

While schools are not known to threaten families with the law in these matters, families cannot protect themselves legally from any exclusion that a school chooses to impose on a student if the school relates the exclusion to a student's demonstrated or assumed potential for unwanted behaviour.

There are problems with how schools conduct themselves in this regard. And there are serious problems with legal processes relating to disability discrimination, especially around disability relating to behaviour. Far too many key people assume Australians with disabilities are protected from discrimination when the protection they need does not exist.

Bob Buckley
Convenor, Autism Asperger Advocacy Australia (A4).

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When I told my son's school that he was saying he didn't want to go to swimming carnival day I asked them for advice because although I kept him home the previous year, I didn't really want to be doing this. They replied that it would be alright to keep him at home ! I was actually asking for them to help him cope with the day as he was a very good swimmer! We have changed school and this new school gives lots of support for these kids to attend carnival days (noise, jostling etc) through various supports ... my son came home with two ribbons for first place in 25 metre races. That's what inclusion is all about.