WATCH ABOVE: Angie Seth reports on how the mother of an autistic student fought her son’s suspension after a principal mentioned corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool.
TORONTO – Tracy Lamourie’s 10-year-old autistic son had been acting out at his Toronto public school. Lamourie said she was first told by teachers that he tried to “twist back” the finger of a staff member who was blocking a door to keep him from running. She said a later report claimed he “tried to break the finger of the teaching assistant” and it resulted in a suspension—his second in two months.
But it was the principal’s response that upset Lamourie the most.
After disputing the suspension of her autistic child and questioning whether that was the best punishment for him, Lamourie says the principal told her:
“Well in my day, he’d get the strap.”
Lamourie said after some email exchanges, Principal Sally Gustin wrote she was “sorry if the comment” caused her pain, but was only intending to “illustrate that we have changed our methods of discipline.”
But Lamourie wasn’t sure the comment was about changing discipline styles.
“This was a heated conversation…So clearly we’re not having a history lesson there about corporal punishment in the schools. We’re talking about right now, what we’re doing with my child….That shows clearly that he’s being viewed as a discipline problem, not a child with a disability.”
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) was made aware of the principal’s statement, but reserved comment until after a Wednesday meeting with Gustin, Lamourie, superintendent Linda Curtis and an autism support team.
“The comment was made as an observation about how we have come a long way with progressive discipline. It was not intended to condone that antiquated, ineffective and unacceptable form of discipline. However, upon reflection, the principal realized it was inappropriate and has offered her sincere apology,” read the statement sent to Global News.
Citing the recent reports that there aren’t enough school supports for special needs children to be in full-day classes, and Councillor Doug Ford’s Saturday comment that a residential home for developmentally disabled youth has “ruined” a neighbourhood, Lamourie said misunderstanding special needs children is a broader problem in many schools.
“It indicates a lack of understanding of autism as a real condition that has behavioural components, and it lessens my confidence that this is a positive and understanding environment for my child,” Lamourie told Global News.
But the PR professional said the meeting went even better than she expected: Her son’s suspension was withdrawn, the principal apologized in person, and the Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Autism Spectrum Disorder (PDD/ASD) team committed to working with teachers and Lamourie to provide more supports to her son, including behavioural modification tactics suggested by an occupational therapist.
“We’re all on the same page now…The different levels of people that are there now all have a plan to coordinate with each other to make for his transition into the next school,” she said, since her son is moving on to a new school for sixth grade next year.
“I don’t have to fight [the suspension], I don’t have to worry about the black mark on his record anymore,” said Lamourie. “And hopefully the principal won’t have to worry about a black mark on her record. I just want to move forward in a way that we can do what’s best for the children.”
Lamourie said even though she’s confident her own son will get the support he needs because of her personal fight, she plans to enter the school board trustee race in Ward 17 Friday, so she can continue to work on behalf of children with special needs.
“There are lot of other families who don’t have the advocacy experience, don’t know how to speak for themselves. When you have 15 people at a table telling you it’s your child, you think: ‘Okay, my child’s bad.’”
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