Parents of disabled children rebel against suspensions

Andrew Stevenson, July 7, 2011

PARENTS of disabled students are taking the Education Department to court alleging discrimination, saying their children are being punished for their disability by being suspended from school.

One boy from Wagga Wagga, with a mild intellectual disability and emotional disorder, was suspended three times for a total of 80 days as an eight-year-old. He is now 10 and his mother last month filed a $50,000 damages claim against the department in the Federal Court.

His lawyer, Phillip French, the director of the NSW Disability Discrimination Legal Centre, said the boy was effectively ''left with no education at all, not even home schooling''.
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''We don't step back from the fact that this child had significant issues in the classroom which challenged his teachers and the education system,'' Mr French said. ''But this is a very large system with professional teachers and a capacity to draw on a range of services which would have provided assistance.''

Complaints about suspensions are the most common reason why parents of disabled schoolchildren contact the centre.

Mr French estimates there are 30 to 40 live actions - before the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Federal Court - most of which allege unfair suspensions.

''There is a very grave problem in the treatment of kids with disabilities in the NSW school system where they experience bullying, and harassment,'' he said. ''Very often these kids are being teased within an inch of their lives, often they are subject to violence from other children and [when they hit back] they get suspended.''

Julie Black says her 15-year-old daughter, who has moderate to severe intellectual disability and displays challenging behaviour, is being discriminated against, having been suspended six times since starting at Wauchope High School last year.

Five suspensions were over-turned following complaints from Ms Black that the school had not followed the Department's procedures when suspending her daughter. An appeal against her daughter's most recent suspension is under way.

''I am fed up with the department's suspension policies which discriminate against children with disabilities,'' Ms Black said. ''This is unfair illegal harassment of families who already struggle with the demanding role of caring for these special children.''

Her daughter was suspended last month for kicking a teacher's aide when, according to Ms Black, she was inadvertently provoked. Despite this incident her daughter's communication book on that day said she had had a ''nice day''.

Sonia Powazuk of Disability Advocacy said many more parents were complaining about inappropriate suspension of disabled students.

''Schools don't seem to follow the proper suspension procedures. We have clients whose children have been suspended and the parents haven't even been given a letter providing reasons for the suspension,'' she said.

Nicole de Vulder, who runs a support group for parents of children with challenging behaviour - said the constant suspensions ''do nothing but exacerbate'' the issue.

''Parents have left their kids at home knowing that they will destroy the house, steal their things or roam the streets and get into trouble but they need to work and have no alternatives. There is no help available for these parents,'' she said.

A spokesman for the Education Department said principals were required to consider any disability when suspending a student for misbehaviour.

''Except in circumstances where the safety of students or staff may be an issue, suspension is generally only used where other interventions have been unsuccessful,'' he said.

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