Ontario mother says her son was placed in a padded ‘cell’ by the school

You can hear the discomfort in Margaret Hodgson’s voice as she describes “the room” she says her son was repeatedly placed in by teachers at an Ontario school without his knowledge or consent.

“I am horrified. Like, I didn’t know this room existed,” Hodgson told CTV News Toronto by phone on Thursday.

The Mississauga mother-of-three said all of her children live with some form of autism, but the challenges faced by her second child were particularly difficult.

“[He] has a lot more anxiety and frustration about not being able to express himself,” Hodgson explained, pointing to his son’s communication, hearing and short-term memory issues.

But it wasn’t until a year into the COVID-19 pandemic that Hodgson said she actually learned the methods her teachers at Riverside Public School had used to keep him in check.

Hodgson said his son was struggling with distance learning and expressed his desire to return to the classroom.

“He bursts into tears and says, ‘I don’t care. I’m done. I don’t want to do this [virtual] school. I want to go back to the real school. I will even go to this room where they put me.

Caught off guard by the reference to a “play”, Hodgson said she started asking questions of her son – who would have been in first grade at the time.

A protocol had been established that if her son needed to be “removed” from a traditional classroom, he would go to the principal’s office first, Hodgson explained. But her son began to describe a different room from the principal’s office.

“When I asked him what room he was talking about, he proceeded to describe the library to me, or so I thought. [he was describing].”

“So I physically walked to school and said ‘show me’ and he took me to the outside window of ASD [autism spectrum disorder] confined class. And he pointed out the window, and I could see that door. And I was like, ‘what is this?’ and he’s like, ‘this is the play,'” Hodgson recalled telling his son in March 2021.

After making several requests to see the interior of the room herself, Hodgson said she finally got a guided tour two months later, accompanied by the Peel District School Board superintendent, the school principal and of his son’s teacher.

Hodgson described a small room with walls covered in shiny vinyl-colored upholstery that she said looked like a prison cell. In fact, she says, the padding is so thick that the only window in the room was barely usable.

She said she was not allowed to take pictures from space.

“I can’t imagine what would go through his brain in that room. Like, he’s not the kid who likes small spaces,” she explained.

As for the number of times his son was placed in the room, Hodgson said he only responded by saying “a lot.”

Hodgson has since removed her son from Riverside and said he has made progress with his homeschooling, which she plans to continue indefinitely until the piece is retired.

“I want him in school. It’s the only place he’ll learn his social [skills]… But I’m not sending it back to Riverside without that piece removed,” she said.

PROVINCE NOT TRACKING USE OF ‘ISOLATION ROOMS’

According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, the use of so-called “isolation rooms” is not tracked by the province.

Additionally, the ministry says it is up to each school board to determine when one of these rooms can be used and for how long.

It’s a big deal, according to autism advocate Anne Borden, who acts as a spokesperson for Autistics 4 Autistics (A4A), which is calling for a ban on seclusion rooms through legislation through of Bill 160.

“If we can see how often this happens, we can identify the epidemic nature of it, work more for an actual ban… But it is very difficult to advocate for the ban of rooms, if you do not know at what frequency they are used. she told CTV News Toronto in an interview.

Due to lack of data, Borden says A4A was forced to rely on statistics from other provinces to try to understand how widespread the problem might be in Ontario.

For example, in Alberta, a report from Edmonton Public Schools released in October 2019 found that isolation rooms in the board’s schools – 137 in number – had been used 716 times in just 19 days in the previous month.

An example of an isolation room can be seen in this image. (CTV News Edmonton)

Alberta’s previous NDP government actually announced a ban on the use of the halls that was to come into effect in the 2019-20 academic year. The new UCP government reversed the ban but introduced new measures to limit and track their use.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said at the time, “Isolation and physical restraint are tools of last resort. I applaud school divisions that are looking for ways to limit their use and are even working to eliminate them. »

Borden thinks that with those statistics in mind, “you can extrapolate from that our provinces aren’t that different” and, much like Alberta, seclusion rooms in Ontario are “often used not in last resort, but first resort”.

Former MLA Michael Coteau introduced Bill 160 in December 2019, but his path to the Legislative Assembly was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic and Coteau’s departure from provincial politics.

IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?

While the goal of A4A and other autism advocates is to see seclusion rooms abolished entirely, Borden said a cornerstone of the alternative approach to teaching children with autism is what this is called trauma-informed care.

“A trauma-informed approach allows teachers to catch their breath and prevent situations from escalating. it also allows them to defuse someone when that person is upset,” she said.

“What’s happening now, in a lot of these classrooms – the classrooms that are using these [seclusion rooms] — is that teachers escalate conflict with their own anger. When a six-year-old kid is put in an isolation room, it’s because the person, the adult, couldn’t control himself.

In an email to CTV News Toronto, a spokesperson for the Peel District School Board said some of its schools, including Riverside Public School, have “calming/de-escalation rooms in an environment of alternative learning”.

“Which can be a room with padded walls, floors and doors for added security. The Peel District School Board has 61 schools with these characteristics in one room,” the board said in a statement.

Although students can voluntarily access rooms, the board said that in certain situations where a student needs to be temporarily separated from the classroom for safety reasons, “the room may be used for de-escalation.”

The board went on to say that when a room is used for de-escalation purposes, this must involve a collaboratively developed response plan as part of the student review process in consultation with a psycho-educational consultant. and parents and must be documented in the student’s file. individualized education plan and safety plan.

These plans, also known as IEPs, allow school boards to work directly with parents on learning approaches that the Department of Education deems effective in meeting student needs.

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