"Assessment of all aspects of a child's life within three months after he or she begins school is essential to understanding that child's capacity to learn. That is important for every child but is especially so for aboriginal children and children in care of the government."
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond Nov. 14, 2012
MY conversation with B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, occurred three days after North Vancouver father Rick Moore won a Supreme Court of Canada ruling against North Vancouver School District #44, and one day before the Representative released her latest report/survey, Trauma, Turmoil and Tragedy.
The precedent-setting court decision - that the school district discriminated against Moore's dyslexic son - was an appropriate backdrop to Turpel-Lafond's survey results. Moore's belief - reported in the North Shore News Nov. 11 - that "the win against this district will have repercussions in all school districts," cannot help but boost the representative's chances of seeing early recognition of learning difficulties become a reality for all children in B.C.
We have no way of knowing the legal and other costs the Moores sustained as a result of the district's failure to provide what Turpel-Lafond would call "individualized intervention" for their dyslexic son, Jeff.
But the repercussions should not stop at the decision itself.
Without question, the school board should have been more assertive in its defence of Jeff's right to appropriate education. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the province to provide sufficient funding to enable school boards to carry out their obligations under the School Act.
Thanks to the determination of former Saanich school trustee, John A. Young, the B.C. Supreme Court has twice confirmed under Section 82 of the act that, "A board must provide free of charge to every student of school age resident in British Columbia . . . all instruction and resource materials necessary to participate in the educational program."
Every child has that right. Indeed, the Ministry of Education policy document on K-12 funding for special needs recognizes the need for additional support and outlines the per capita allowances which range from $36,000 per full-time equivalent for special education at Level 1 assessment, to $18,300 for Level 2 and $9,200 for students evaluated at Level 3.
The assessments - diagnoses - are required as soon as the school board enrolls a special needs student.
Little wonder then that, as the News reported, the Supreme Court of Canada decision stated: "Adequate special education . . . is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."
But as Turpel-Lafond's Nov. 15 report shows, special needs or not and adequate or otherwise, that statutory commitment too often misses its mark by a country mile. When it does, the result can be more devastating for students and their families than being faced with the necessity to pay expensive fees to alternative schools - tough sledding though that is.
The subheading to the Representative's report reads: Understanding the Needs of Children and Youth at Risk of Suicide and Self-Harm.
As Turpel-Lafond observed in our discussion, "the job is important and it will take a lot of work."
I asked her: "How can we expect children to reach their potential when, even if they do attend school, they may have undiagnosed dyslexia or other learning disabilities?"
How can they succeed if, as reported last Wednesday by the First Call Coalition, one in seven B.C. children live in poverty, too hungry or ill-equipped to learn?"
"It is a recipe for a very sick society unless we turn this around," said Dr. John Millar of the Public Health Association of B.C.
Yet these questions have been asked and studied in this province for more than 35 years - by pediatricians, by rural and urban family physicians, by B.C. Public Health doctors and nurses and by educators like Vancouver's Ken Denike.
But all First Call heard from Victoria in reaction to its numbers was the usual nauseating political spin.
It is unconscionable that, in 2012, it has taken another report and recommendations from the Representative to rattle our cages yet again. There is so much in her most recent document that deserves to be highlighted: "All of the 89 youth in the review had received services from the Ministry of Children and Family Development and 58 were in the care of the ministry at the time of suicide or self-harm." And later: "A disturbingly high number of the youth (52, or 58 per cent) in the review were Aboriginal."
How can we expect children to learn, to graduate from high school, to form positive relationships and get a decent-paying job, when they are being moved from place to place - some of them more than 30 times in their young lives?
Thankfully, there are two bright spots on the horizon.
On Aug. 1, 2012, Kamloops principal DeDe DeRose took up her duties as the newly-designated Superintendent of Aboriginal Achievement. And in September, Maureen Dockendorf began a nine-month effort as Superintendent of Literacy to prove her belief that the reading skills of K-3 children can be enhanced.
Let us hope Dockendorf first takes heed of Turpel-Lafond's recommendation that all children, especially aboriginal children, receive immediate assessment and individualized interventions as soon as they are enrolled in kindergarten.
That is the only way we can avoid the risk of losing children like Jeff Moore through the cracks of our negligent inattention to their needs.