Schools failed teen: Watchdog report

A scathing report into the neglect of a teenager with special needs laid partial blame on the Chilliwack school district.

A scathing report into the neglect of a teenager with special needs laid partial blame on the Chilliwack school district.

At a press conference on Monday, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s child and youth watchdog, who commissioned the Isolated and Invisible report, requested a separate investigation into the Ministry of Education, and subsequently the Chilliwack school district, for its role in the neglect of a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was left alone with her dead mother for at least a week.

“What happened at school or didn’t happen is deserving of its own further investigation and report with school officials,” said Turpel-Lafond.

“The girl missed far too much school. It was another situation where observations by professionals could have offered results and needed interventions.”

The girl, who attended Mt. Slesse middle school, missed 38.5 days of school the year prior to her mother’s death – all of which occurred in the last half of the school year. She also missed the first week of Grade 10 at Sardis secondary.

Despite the school contacting ministry officials regarding the girl’s absences, Turpel-Lafond said it wasn’t enough.

“On the education side, it was a passive approach,” said Turpel-Lafond. “The school was phoning the ministry and saying the child’s not at school, or the child’s coming to school and is so exhausted she’s sleeping all through the school day, but the idea of making the deeper inquiries into what was happening with that child required dedicated work. And what we found here is they did not sufficiently look at this child.”

Another point of contention for Turpel-Lafond concerned a meeting regarding the teenager’s  Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for secondary school being held without the mother or any other family member in attendance.

IEPs are designed for students with special needs that include program adaptations, modifications and strategies to help the student meet individualized goals, as well as a list of support services to be provided to the student through the year. Typically parents and schools work together in formulating IEPs.

“That was a crucial year for this child because she would be transitioning to high school,” said Turpel-Lafond.

And without a parent or any other advocate acting on her behalf, “who was planning for this child’s transition to high school? It was left entirely to someone in the school.  Was that a meaningful process? No it wasn’t.”

Turpel-Lafond said schools need to learn from this case.

“They need to ensure that if mom’s not coming, someone from the Ministry for Children and Family Development needs to come in place of mom so that there’s real planning that keeps the focus on the needs of the child.”

Chilliwack superintendent Corinne McCabe felt the schools had done a good job at trying to communicate with both the child’s mother and the ministry, but agreed improvements could be made.

“We will be studying the details in the report and the recommendations in the report very carefully and looking at all of our practices to ensure that students with special needs, who are in challenging situations, are given adequate supports,” said McCabe.

The Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD) is developing an action plan in response to the report. The Ministry of Education is working with MCFD, but at this time has no plans of commissioning a separate investigation.

kbartel@theprogress.com

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