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Parents fight for 'systemic change' in how Surrey students with autism are supported

Surrey Now Leader - 6/23/2018

An estimated 40 parents wearing "Team Maya" T-shirts attended a Surrey school board meeting this week, asking for support worker "continuity" for children with autism and other disabilities.

Leading the charge is Nicole Kaler, whose daughter Maya has autism.

Kaler filed a Human Rights Tribunal complaint against the Surrey School District and CUPE 728 last year. She said it resulted in her daughter receiving the support Kaler wanted, but that it inspired her to help other parents fight for "systemic change."

Union representatives are "deciding the needs of students with disabilities," according to Kaler, who added: "Parents are fighting back."

"With Maya, the settlement we ended up with was she got to keep her EA until she's out of the Surrey school district," she explained. "But she had a law firm working pro bono for her. Most people will never have that, and that's not fair. She's no different than the other children."

Kaler said the issue boils down to some disabled children receiving new support workers too often, and the disruption in their care that results in.

"Each child with autism presents with different challenges at school and support workers are trained to support their unique behaviours and needs," noted Kaler. "These support workers are trained in an Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to teaching, therapy and intervention. Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified ABA workers to support all the children who are eligible for ABA support. Education Assistants get trained to support a student with autism and fill the role of an ABA."

Kaler said the problem is, each year, the union requires the EA roles be filled based on seniority, "not allowing the person has been trained for the role to continue in the role."

"For the child this means a new, untrained EA and the child starts their school year off, year after year, with untrained support," explained Kaler. "Sometimes it takes months for the new EA to learn communication techniques, gain instructional control so the child is safe, understand echolalic communication, and many other individual needs. Surrey parents are demanding that the student specific experience and qualifications of an EA filling these roles with autistic students come before seniority."

School district spokesman Doug Strachan said the thrust of parents' concerns at Wednesday night's board meeting was "that there are some instances where EAs that have been working with a student are not continued in that position with the same student for the next school year."

"That happens," he acknowledged.

Why?

"It could be that an EA for a child has taken another job, or they've moved to another district, so they've vacated it, now we need to post it," explained Stachan. "So there's a temporary EA assigned because there isn't time to go through the process, so by the end of the school year, the process is settled for next year. So that temporary posting is posted for a full-time EA for that child. So it's part of the union agreement."

ABA workers, Strachan explained, tend to stay in positions longer, because although part of the union, they are not subject to the same posting and seniority process.

But there simply aren't enough ABAs, he said, so EAs are put in positions.

Strachan noted last year, the district had more than 3,000 students receiving EA support. Of those students, six requests were made for continuance of EAs last year, noted Strachan.

"This year — and it happens at this time of year — we had 30 requests for continuance," he said. "Four of those were withdrawn, the parents withdrew their requests. Six, we worked with the union, CUPE Local 278, on a case by case basis and were able to come to an agreement with them, that they would overrule seniority and the posting process which would normally occur. Because of the circumstances of those six students, it was agreed the child would benefit by keeping that same EA."

That leaves 20 requests for continuance "outstanding," Strachan noted.

"The posting process doesn't conclude until June 29 and we fully expect that there will be a number of those requests that will end up with the same EA," he added.

"At the end of the day parents want what's best for their kids - and they're going to push for it and rightly so," said Strachan. "The district has to balance a whole myriad of considerations as it goes forward…. Another important point here is this is the same in every district - we're not unique in this. If anything we're different because the union will agree on a case-by-case basis to overrule seniority. Thankfully the union local is at least willing to consider and will grant exceptions."

Asked what the school district would do after the parents' turned out in force to the June 20 board meeting, Strachan said they will each have their individual questions answered.

"They didn't appear as a delegation," said Strachan, explaining they spoke in the question-and-answer period of the meeting, "so there was no two-way or opportunity for questions from trustees…. Fifteen or so parents who came up and asked questions, and questions varied."

They will each have a response back about their questions, individually, he noted.

As for Kaler's human rights complaint last year, Strachan said it was "dismissed," but Kaler insists she withdrew it after the district assured her that would prioritize "the rights of students, protected in the Human Rights Code, over the collective agreement moving forward."

Documents Kaler provided to the Now-Leader show she withdrew her complaint because she "settled" the complaint with the respondents.

After Wednesday night's meeting, Kaler said she and the parents are "disappointed."

"I am so upset that they are re-writing the history of our experience," she told the Now-Leader.

If the school district and CUPE 728 don't make a change, Kaler said parents are organizing to file further Human Rights complaints.

"We hope the trustees realize this idea of continuity, it's not going away," she added. "We're determined, as parents, to start acting as a collective so we have as strong a voice as the union, their collective."



amy.reid@surreynowleader.com

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