Last week we were informed that our application for Lynyrd to join Alex at school was denied. Here is how it played out.
“We don’t know where Alex is.”
Those are never words that any parent wants to hear from their child’s school. But those are the words that I heard on October 10, 2018. My son, Alex, who has severe autism, had left his classroom, left the school, and gotten on an OC Transpo bus. School staff had alerted the police, OC Transpo staff and were searching the community for my son.
This wasn’t the first time that Alex had left his classroom or been the subject of a massive search. Ever since he was a small child, he would bolt away from me and any other adults if something caught his attention. His lightning quick escapes required me to hire an aide to accompany me on any errands and even so, there were a number of times that we didn’t know where he was and had to search. Since beginning school, I can’t count the number of times that Alex has left the classroom and needed to be pursued by teachers and aides. It is a part of his educational profile.
On October 10th, the police picked Alex up at a nearby mall as he prepared to take another bus downtown. The school let me know that Alex had been found and asked me to come to the school right away.
As I drove to the school, my feelings were a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. I was obviously upset about the situation but not as much as I would have been under other circumstances. Because at the time, I was confident that we were on the cusp of a solution. In two weeks, a trainer from National Service Dogs would come from Cambridge to Ottawa to be at Alex’s school, training them to handle his service dog, Lynyrd. Once Lynyrd would be with Alex at school, then Alex’s ability to bolt would be greatly reduced.
Lynyrd and Alex are tethered together and if Alex leaves without an adult, then Lynyrd can be commanded to sit down and become an anchor, allowing the adult to regain control of Alex. Since first receiving a service dog in April 2017, our family’s ability and opportunity to go out in public had dramatically increased. We were even able to travel to Disneyworld and enjoy Alex’s delight, rather than constantly worrying about his physical safety.
It was a rare sensation for me as a parent. To know that there was an issue but that the school and I were working cooperatively to remove the risk to Alex’s safety and give him the best opportunity for progress.
Training is cancelled.
This is why it shocked me to be notified on the day before training that the OCDSB was cancelling the training with National Service Dogs over unspecified “concerns.”
For the last four months, I have been asking what those concerns are, only to be met with silence. OCDSB representatives have insisted the situation is under “review” without telling me what the issues are. I have repeatedly offered to collaborate to solve whatever concerns OCDSB has and meanwhile, Alex continues to escape his classroom and school staff.
We first applied for the accommodation of having Alex’s service dog attend school in May 2017. We were asked to apply again in September 2018 and did so immediately. We purchased the supplies that OCDSB indicated should be available for the dog at school (a mat, a spare leash and tether, a water bowl, etc.). We worked with the staff at the school, who were eager and welcoming of Lynyrd.
In November 2018, as I was struggling to understand this abrupt refusal on the part of OCDSB, I discovered a policy on service dogs which they had created in November 2017, after we had initially applied.
The policy indicates that school staff will not be permitted to serve as handlers for the dog, and given that union regulations also prohibit third parties within classrooms, this effectively bars all autism service dogs from the classroom. If this policy is the reason behind OCDSB’s inexplicable refusal, then that is implied discrimination and a human rights violation. If this policy was created specifically to bar my son’s service dog from school, then this is targeted discrimination against my family.
To my knowledge, no other school board in Ontario prohibits staff from serving as handlers to a service dog. On October 30th 2018, the Ontario government announced legislation requiring schools to have a policy for service dogs that is transparent to families wishing to apply, and that the requirements for a service dog must be equal to any other disability.
If my son was in a wheelchair, OCDSB would allow an EA to push the chair. To refuse his service dog is to exclude him from participating in school.
With the cuts to the autism program, children with autism will be returning to schools across Ontario. I think parents in Ottawa should be aware of this discriminatory policy and of how difficult it is for our children to receive the accommodations they need. In my case, my son had a demonstrated need for additional resources to keep him safe. I had the cooperation of the school and a resource that could be implemented at no cost to the taxpayers or school board. My son had escaped and been picked up by police. And yet we are blocked and denied the permanent resources necessary for his physical safety.
This week I met with OCDSB officials who told me that the school board was denying the dog but would fund an additional EA for the remaining 4 months of the school year but would not guarantee funding for the future as they consider the issue to be temporary and fixed. I insisted on continuing to collect data.
The official told me that I could reapply to have Lynyrd join Alex in the fall. They then repeated that the OCDSB was committed to prohibiting their staff from serving as handlers, guaranteeing that any future application would be rejected.
This is incredibly disheartening. We are trying to determine what else we can do to overturn this OCDSB policy without threatening Alex's current supports at school.
If you are interested in supporting Alex, you can contact me at LynyrdNSD@xdroop.com. You can also contact your local OCDSB trustee and tell them that you support autism service dogs in school and are opposed to any policies that would prevent them. Thank you for your support and well-wishes.