School is supposed to be a safe space for children to learn and grow, creating skill sets they’ll carry with them for life. But, what happens when it’s no longer that safe space?
For one local woman, this fear/what-if became a reality.
Denise Beland’s son, Drew Walls, attends a local high school within the Algoma District School Board. Walls is 17, but operates at the level of a two-year-old. Therefore, he needs the assistance of an Educational Assistant, or EA.
For the first year and a half of his high school experience, Beland says things ran smoothly. Then, about a year ago, things took a turn for the worse.
Beland started receiving calls from the school saying her son was acting out. As time progressed, Drew’s behaviours started escalating.
“Then it became, he’s flipping desks, he’s screaming, he’s crying, he’s just completely losing his temper,” she said.
“This continued for a couple of months, and then I started getting calls that he was wetting his pants, he was stripping all of his clothes off and then peeing on his clothes. Then it turned into he was having bowel movements in his pants. Flipping out on the bus, which was a new thing that wasn’t going on at the time, prior to that. I didn’t know what was going on because this was all still going on only at school, but none of it had transferred to at home.”
Beland said she knew this was out-of-character for Drew.
“I was not seeing that behaviour at home,” she said. “At that time, I had a babysitter after school until I got home from work. And I asked her if she had seen any of those same behaviours and she said no.”
She explained that, although doctors told her to expect violent outbursts with Drew’s diagnosis, she worked really hard with him throughout his childhood to make sure that didn’t happen.
“As a parent, you have to be proactive, you have to do whatever you can to make sure that (violent outbursts) don’t happen. And that usually can happen when they hit puberty. So I worked really, really hard to get him to that point where he wasn’t going to be like that,” she explained. “He hit puberty and the only thing that happened was he would cry a lot. He wasn’t acting out, wasn’t violent, wasn’t anything. Whether he wanted to be cuddled or not, I made sure he got cuddled. And that made him be extremely affectionate with other people as well – if he cared for you, he would want hugs and kisses. We made it until he was 16 with no violent outbursts.”
Feeling that something wasn’t right at school, she made the decision to contact Drew’s Community Living Algoma worker.
“I asked him if he could go in and look into what was happening, what was going on. He went in and did some observing – he’s allowed to watch and observe and be present. He then booked an appointment with me, came to my house and asked ‘what do you think is the issue?'” She said. “And I said ‘I honestly think it’s a school issue, I just can’t figure out what yet.'”
She continued, saying “Drew can’t communicate what’s going on or what’s happening. He can only express his wants. If he wants food, a car ride, or whatever. He can tell you that, but he can’t express any feelings or if something bad is happening to him or anything like that. His CLA worker then said ‘based on my observation, I found the staff to be aggressive and confrontational with your son, and that’s what was bringing out the behaviours because he was responding to how he was being treated.'”
Beland said this revelation both shocked and angered her. She decided to remove Drew from the school until something could be done. This resulted in him missing two weeks of school.
She then set up a meeting with the CLA worker, the principal, the teacher, and herself, to discuss the issues at the school.
“I mentioned in the meeting, with the principal present, what the worker had mentioned, with him sitting right there, about them being aggressive and confrontational with Drew, and it seemed like it was two EA members who were like that with him,” she explained. “The plan was that Drew would be placed with a different EA worker on a regular basis, to see if that helped with the behaviours. The principal didn’t say anything in that meeting at all, he just took notes and observed, but didn’t express anything, didn’t say anything. I was then told that there was going to be some staff changeover for the following year, because I had already contacted the Catholic School Board and was trying to move him.”
Feeling like she had no other option, as he was still on the wait list for the Catholic School Board, she decided to send him back to the same school in September. Things seemed to be improving – he had a great teacher who was helping Beland work on reversing his learned behaviours, which by that point had started transpiring at home as well, and he seemed to be responding well.
Then shortly after the new year, Drew’s behaviour started declining again. At the time, Beland didn’t think it had anything to do with the school, as Drew does have Seasonal Mood Disorder which affects him from February to March.
“I was thinking that was the behaviour issues, just his normal, regular yearly mood swings that he gets,” she said.
Around this time, Drew’s class was supposed to go on a field trip to see a play at another high school. Beland picked him up for a doctor’s appointment the day before the trip, when an EA pulled her aside and told her that she needed to attend the field trip with Drew, as the school didn’t have the proper staffing to accommodate him in case something were to happen.
“The teacher was away. One of the EAs of the classroom had approached me and said that they had received a text from the teacher advising of what’s in this letter. And I said ‘I understand that, but it’s the day before. I work full-time. I can’t just last-minute make this arrangement to attend because you don’t have enough staff, or you guys didn’t plan early enough, or whatever the situation is.'”
Beland did offer what she thought to be a solution to the issue.
“I said ‘so here’s an alternative: I will have someone at my home – I live literally almost right behind the school – if there are any issues – he used to attend this play with the elementary school and he enjoyed it – whoever is at my home – you can call my home number – they will come and pick him up immediately and return him back home, and then can return him back to the high school to catch the bus to go back to school for the rest of the day,’ because they had sled rides in the afternoon.”
She brought Drew back to the school after his doctor appointment and returned to work. When she got home, she found a note in Drew’s backpack.
“So I thought I provided them an alternative, everything would be fine, Drew could attend; I get home from work, this note was in his backpack.
So, obviously he stayed home the next day, didn’t go to school at all, and I went to work. I was upset about that letter; I contacted the principal, and I said to him, ‘I offered an alternative.’ He said he was not made aware that I had provided an alternative, that what I provided would have worked, he would’ve been okay with it. Unfortunately, whoever I spoke to didn’t pass that message along to him; they drafted this letter at the end of the day. That’s how I got that.”
Prior to this, Drew’s behaviour had started escalating again. Again, he was acting out and being violent on the bus, and having issues at school. Beland had been called a couple of times to come pick him up.
“The two times that I was called to pick him up, they had outtings planned for those days, so I don’t know if they called because they didn’t want him to go on the outtings and said he had (been acting up), but when I entered the school he was fine. He was sitting in a rocking chair, his eyes were clear – they said he was crying, screaming – he looked fine to me, so I’m not sure what was going on, she said. “But I was having problems at home this time from the get-go, almost. He was crying and screaming at bedtime, kept telling me ‘stay home, stay home’ when I was putting him to bed, he was just losing it. Freaking out. I just thought, again, seasonal mood disorder, it’s just lasting a little longer than normal – usually it’s 2-4 weeks, we were at 6-8 weeks at this point.”
As it was getting closer to March Break it was only getting worse.
Then, during March Break, Beland got a call from the CAS saying they’d received a report that Drew was being mistreated by an EA worker in his class.
“I was angry, sickened and felt like I failed my son,” she said. “As his mother, how did I miss the signs that he was being mistreated again? I was also told by another EA in his class of the last incident which prompted the call where my son was grabbed by the back of his jacked and yanked back and then the said EA turned to other EA’s and said ‘He’s being a fucking asshole today’ “.
When March Break ended, Beland decided not to send Drew back to school.
“I was also made aware from CAS that the principal was aware of the situation. But I never got a call from the principal,” she explained. “A couple of days after school was back in, I got a call from the teacher asking ‘where’s Drew, we’re concerned, is he coming in, what’s going on?’ A couple of days (after that), I finally decided to call the principal and he told me that the reason he didn’t contact me is that the investigation was started and he was allowing the investigation to take place, that he didn’t think it was his place to communicate that to me. So I explained to him, ‘you know, that’s my son, if you knew there was an issue, I should’ve been made aware.’ I understand maybe he can’t tell me the specifics, but I should’ve been made aware that there was a situation, the person’s been removed from the program, everything is safe. Now my concern is this is two years in a row that this is happening. And, other than attending that meeting last year, he hadn’t said anything; there’s been no communication.
So I explained to him that I should’ve been notified, I should’ve been told ‘this is what’s going on, this is how we’re handling it, everything’s safe, it’s okay.’ So he goes ‘yeah, everything is fine.’ So I made the decision to bring my son the next morning to school, and I dropped him off myself. And while I was dropping him off, one of the EAs had kind of stayed behind while everybody else had gone into the classroom, and had said to me that, in her opinion, it was all blown out of proportion, that the incident that prompted the call was the EA had grabbed my son from the back of the jacket and yanked him back, and that she then turned to another EA or other EAs and said ‘he’s being a fucking asshole today.’ And she felt that that was blown out of proportion, it was no big deal, kind of was what she was getting across. But she also, when I went back, after I left I was really concerned, at that point, because if she doesn’t think it’s a big deal, how can I entrust these people with my child? So I went back at lunch time because he had an appointment that day as well – so I went back to take him to his appointment and I had made the decision that I was yanking him out (of school), I wasn’t sending him back until I knew everything was going to be okay. When I went back to pick him up, the EA came back out in the hall with me and she was very concerned that I didn’t repeat the information that she provided – she was afraid that she would get in trouble. And I told her ‘I won’t say anything unless I have to.’ And if I had to, then obviously I would have to say something. So I pulled Drew back out of the school – that was two weeks after March Break, so more towards the end of March.”
Since then, the case passed its 60-day period and the CAS worker had to close it.
“Then I get the report from CAS that, unfortunately, they weren’t able to confirm that anything had happened, or had been happening, to my son. I called (the worker) back and I said ‘okay, well, I have the one EA who said to me the information which I’ve provided to you. Somebody had obviously witnessed something to make the report as well, and it’s not the EA who came to me, so that’s at least two people. How did you come to this decision?’ and she said ‘it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it just means that I wasn’t able to prove it.’ But she only has 60 days and then she has to close the file. So that 60 days came, the file was closed.”
Pulling Drew out of school hasn’t been easy on Beland’s budget, though. Since he’s been at home full-time, she’s had to pay a babysitter for the days she works. She also has him enrolled in an adult enrichment program two days a week, which she pays for out-of-pocket.
“I’ve been trying to get help financially. The services that I have for his respite, I can’t use for that, and I haven’t been able to get any financial help with paying the costs for him to be at the program,” she explained. “It’s coming to a point where the little bit I do have – he goes two days a week – Mondays and Wednesdays – and then he’s home the rest. And I work full-time Monday to Friday 9-5. So it’s getting to a point where I’m going to potentially have to quit my job, because I can’t afford – once the respite money for at-home runs out, I’m looking at $1200 a month – and I can’t afford that. So it’s going to come to a point, where, at the end of June, or sometime in July, I’ll run out of the money. When he turns 18, he gets what’s called The Passport Program. However, there’s a waiting list. So that being the respite or any money that I could get to cover the Adult Enrichment, if I wanted him to continue in that program full-time. But it’s a matter of ‘when will that kick in?’ to cover that. So yeah, come summer time, I’m probably going to have to quit my job just to be able to take care of him, because I’m already almost ran out of money. The new fiscal year for that just started at the beginning of April. The beginning of April is when it started and I’m already going to be out because of the costs – with him being home full-time.”
Beland has been trying to get in contact with higher-ups in the school board, but keeps hitting road blocks.
“I made phone calls to four people higher up in the school board. I left two messages with one and left one message with the other three. Finally, after about a week and a half, I got a call back from one. He got my story over the phone, I explained to him what was going on, my concerns, everything like that. He told me he would look into it, wanted to know what I wanted out of it. I said ‘what I’m looking to do is have a meeting with everybody involved and somebody higher up in the school, discuss what’s going on, how it can be handled, how I can know that my son will be safe if he is back in the program, because I had no other options because he was still on the waiting list for the Catholic School Board. He said he would call me back in about a week or so. I haven’t heard back. It’s been (over)
two months. Never got a call back, never anything. The principal never called to say ‘why hasn’t Drew returned after that half a day?’ No one has tried to communicate to see what was happening, what was going on, nothing. Everything is completely silent from their end.”
Beland has also been in touch with the local MPP’s office as well as the police and a lawyer.
“I was told certain steps to take, so the next step was – when they closed that file – I contacted the police station and said ‘this is the situation, what are my options? Can I file charges? Can I file a report?’ That was then passed on to the school liaison officer. I then got a call from the principal – I made the call the Saturday of the long weekend – and the principal called on the Tuesday when school was back in, with the school liaison officer there – and after speaking with them over the phone, it was pretty much explained to me that the school handles things internally. So she asked a few times what I wanted, I said I want report, so she said that she would look into it. As of this point I haven’t heard back, so I’m not sure – I know she was supposed to look into it, so it’ll probably be a bit before I hear back from them, but at this point, there’s been nothing.”
Beland then decided to post her story on Facebook to see if anyone else was going through the same experience as she was.
“I did post the story on my Facebook and I thought maybe I would hear back complaints from other people in regards to both school boards, and all of the replies that I’ve gotten where specifically from just the public school board,” she explained. “It appears that all of the people who have contacted me have hit the same roadblocks as I have. And we’re working together to potentially looking at filing a lawsuit. The lawyer that I was talking to – he’s on a personal leave, so I’ve called around to other lawyers here in town. Unfortunately there’s a conflict of interest with the school board, so a lot of lawyers cannot represent. So I’m currently looking at what my options are for a lawyer out of town and then bringing in the people who have messaged me and said that yes, they want to move forward with a lawsuit with me. Then we’ll look at seeing what our options are at that point. Because the only option I have is getting some sort of funding or getting something so I can continue to work. But, at the same time, Drew’s best interest needs to be looked at, and he also needs to be able to continue with the routines so that he doesn’t regress with him not attending any type of program. ‘Cause that’s my main concern, is him regressing or not socializing enough with other people so that that becomes an issue later on. When he’s home like he is now, if I don’t take him out enough, then it becomes a struggle to take him out. So I need him kind of sort of back into some sort of a routine.”
She says she’s hoping to see a positive outcome from this situation.
“I’m concerned for the other parents and the other children. My preferred outcome is that, number one, people in the school board are aware of what is going on in the public school board, and how can we make sure going forward that the communication is there. That, when there is an issue, it’s getting addressed, not privately, but with the parents and the children. That’s my main goal for what I would like to see as the outcome. Because it’s kind of scary to hear how many other families have dealt with the same situation in regards to either – like a couple of the ones that I’ve heard back from are actually teachers, not EAs. Some of the ones that I heard back were EAs that they’ve had issues with. My main concern is why is this happening so much here in town and what’s being done about it? Because it doesn’t seem like anything is.”
She would also like to see some sort of compensation for the money she’s had to spend while he hasn’t been in school.
“Just compensation, like if he has to go into the Adult Enrichment full-time, like for me to continue to have employment. Because I’ve already used up almost all of his respite. They should have been the one paying for that. But how can I request that when nobody is returning my call? How can I voice to them or send my child back if my calls are not being returned? Why does it take the principal calling me AFTER I’ve called the police station? You know, why is he not being proactive, to say ‘this is what’s happening, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to deal with it.’ There’s been none of that. There’s been absolutely no reaching out to me, other than because the (liaison) officer was there. The principal has never called me, ever. Except for ‘your son’s acting up, I need you to come get him.’ That’s the only time I’ve heard from the principal. It’s frustrating. Very, very frustrating. And even in the meeting with the Community Living worker – very silent, didn’t say anything, didn’t assure me that ‘we’ll do this, we’ll do that, we’ll make sure that this is how it’s handled.’ There was none of that. And now that he’s removed out of the program, bedtime is smooth again. He takes a shower, he goes to bed, comes out of his room 50 million times, but there’s no meltdowns. There’s no screaming, there’s no freaking out. Everything is all smooth. When I’m taking him to the Adult Enrichment Program on the two days he goes, as soon as he sees me packing his lunch, he’s asking for his clothes, he wants to, he’s ready to go. We pull into the driveway, he’s got a big smile on his face, he’s excited. The seatbelt comes off all on his own and he’s ready to get in there and enjoy the day. And the reports I’m getting from them is no meltdowns. Everything is going very smooth. And he has a full day. He’s there longer than what he was at school, for the daytime hours. And there’s been no issues. No issues.”
“It really is (frustrating), said Beland. “You can only do so much as a parent and then there’s nothing more you can do.
Since her interview with SaultOnline, Beland has been in touch with the ombudsman’s office, who, she said via text, looked into things and spoke with a superintendent of the public school board. The superintendent admitted that the principal did not handle the situation correctly.
“As far as I was told, the principal was advised as to what the procedure is if he finds himself in the same situation again. He also advised me that he was told that a constable looked into my complaint and had closed whatever the constable was doing. However, I never received a call from them notifying me of that. So, at this point, I have paid to retain a lawyer.”
SaultOnline reached out the the ADSB, who couldn’t comment on the situation, as it’s still under investigation.