Teaching staff — teachers and educational aides — of autistic students in Barrie in southern Ontario have been employing blocker shields that are used in martial arts training for “safety and support” in school classrooms. According to the Toronto Star, the shields have been used in Barrie public schools since fall of 2010, but parents said they had only learned of what some have termed “riot gear” after an anonymous individual sent a photo of autistic students with aides carrying the shields.
A Disturbing Lack of Communication From the School to Parents
Not only is it outright disturbing to hear about the school district using such blocker shields. But parents had not, says the Toronto Star, been informed about the shields.
In the US, not informing parents about the use of such equipment to “manage” the students’ challenging behaviors is a potential violation of students’ rights under the Individuals with Education Disabilities Act (IDEA). My own teenage autistic son Charlie has had a number of “challenging behaviors” throughout his life that have, at times, included throwing, grabbing, biting and head-banging. He has always had a Behavior Intervention Plan that specifically describes what to do when there is a “crisis” situation — when he gets extremely upset, often from anxiety, stomach discomfort or other feelings that he doesn’t have the language to express. Before teachers and aides can implement the plan, my husband and I have to discuss the plan and sign off on it. When there is a crisis situation, my son’s school sends home a written report the day of the incident; his teacher also often calls me.
Would the Barrie parents have agreed to the use of blocker shields had the school district discussed these in advance?
Details About the Use of Blocker Shields in Barrie Schools
Kathi Wallace, director of the Simcoe County District School Board, said that what she termed “foam pads” are used in a class of autistic students at Barrie North Collegiate and also for students with “high needs” in other district high schools. The union representing aids working with students with disabilities also defended the use of the shields. I quote the specific arguments of these parties as the use of such equipment for “safety and support” is a legal issue:
“They [the shields] were put in place based on needs that were identified in certain classrooms,” said [school board director] Wallace.
“If you had a young person, let’s say, whose behaviour was such that even prior to a helmet going on their head . . . they’re hitting their head against the wall, then this foam pad would give protection.”
The union representing educational assistants working with special needs students in Simcoe County said workers often suffer concussions, bites, punches and slaps, and the shields help prevent such injuries.
“They’ll use them as a blocker to just block the aggressor. It is just to protect themselves for the moment until they defuse the situation,” said Silvanna Petersen, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 330.
The Toronto District School Board supplies jackets with extra padding and shin guards in some classes with autistic or developmentally delayed students but the board has not approved blocker shields, said Bonnie Dineen, educational assistant at Oakwood Collegiate Institute.
She said for the most part educators require protection. “We absolutely are assaulted regularly in the classroom.”
Educators may feel that they are being “assaulted” but this choice of wording is troubling when used in regard to students with disabilities. While I can say from our own experiences that helping Charlie when he is in crisis is very physically demanding, we know that he is not trying to “aggress” or hurt anyone. His neurological system is out of control at these times; his anxiety level is way, way up; he often seems to be in a state of “fight or flight.”
One parent in Barrie, Susan Clough, is arguing to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that the use of the shields is “proof of ongoing systemic discrimination against her autistic son.” Another parent, Anita Walsh, whose son is 15 years old and non-verbal, points out that there are two aides per student and has demanded to “know who approved them [the shields] and how the educators are trained.”
Photo by Simon Blackley
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