A mother and father are suing the Alberta government and a school district over the treatment of their son in a seclusion room at a Sherwood Park school.
In a statement of claim filed at the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel said their then 13-year-old son – who has developmental disabilities and autism – was locked and left naked in an unsupervised seclusion room in 2015.
“They did something that brutal to my son,” Oakes said.
When personnel at Sherwood Park’s Clover Bar Junior High School checked on the boy, they found he was smeared in feces, according to the statement of claim. The document also outlines how school officials then took a photo of the boy, sent it to his parents and told them to come and get him.
“He’s one of the strongest kids and to see what I saw, I’ve never seen that before,” Henschel said.
“My son does not take his clothes off willingly in a room unless he has been taught that,” Oakes said. “In the back of my mind, I will never know – because he can’t speak – how much they put him in that room.”
Oakes and Henschel said the experience left them shocked, horrified and overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. The parents said they never agreed to having their son locked in a seclusion room, nor was the procedure identified as part of their son’s positive behaviour support plan.
In a statement, Elk Island Public Schools said it is aware of the lawsuit.
“The allegations made have yet to be tested in court, where we will strongly defend the actions of our staff. As the case is before the courts, we cannot comment further on the matter.”
Inclusion Alberta – a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of children with developmental disabilities and their families – is launching an online public survey to find out the prevalence of seclusion rooms and other restraints in Alberta schools.
“It’s not just about the use of seclusion in this instance,” Inclusion Alberta CEO Bruce Uditsky said. “It’s about the abandonment and neglect and abuse that any of us would typically understand in any other circumstances and how come it’s accepted and tolerated in a school?”
The parents have since moved their son to a different school district where they say he is well-treated and safe.
They said they want accountability for what happened to their son and would like to sit down with the education minister.
“We get it. We get the way the world goes around,” Oakes said.
“It starts form the top and so the government, I need you to listen to me. If not, I will keep talking.”
An Edmonton mother shared another experience with seclusion rooms with Global News Radio.
Angela McNair had been working with Steinhauer School on a learning and behaviour plan for her six-year-old son, who is autistic.
She said she specified she did not want him put in a seclusion room but that’s where he ended up on his first tour of the classroom at the end of August.
“We get up to the door, which is the chill room door — that timeout room — and the teacher said, ‘Do you know what this room is?’ And my son said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to show you’ and my son said, ‘OK.’ And the teacher said, ‘This is where kids who are bad go.'”
When her son reacted badly, McNair says the teacher put him in the room.
“I ran up to the door, I tried opening it, I couldn’t open it. I yelled that you just ruined everything we’d been working so hard for!
“I told him to come and open the door right now. He stepped over to the door and opened it. My son came out. He was scared. He was upset.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools said: “Timeout spaces are used as a last resort intervention for students whose behaviour puts their own safety, the safety of other students and/or staff at risk.”
It also said “timeout spaces do not lock and are monitored at all times.”
The school board said it takes child safety seriously and if it receives a concern, it’s investigated thoroughly.
EPSB officials also said they are reviewing the use of seclusion rooms and timeout spaces across the district and look forward to participating in the provincial review announced Friday.
There is no jurisdiction in Canada that bans seclusion rooms. However, in a statement to Global News Friday morning, Education Minister David Eggen said a working group will be tasked with developing guidelines to make schools safer for students and teachers.
“I’m very concerned with this situation and student safety must always be a top priority,” Eggen said in a statement.
“Seclusion rooms should only be used as a last resort and I will be convening a working group of parents, teachers and advocates to develop a new set of guidelines for all Alberta schools to follow. This work will begin as soon as possible.”
Inclusion Alberta said it wants the provincial education department to take responsibility for ensuring the safety and rights of students with disabilities.
A statement of claim shows the student is seeking $275,000 for emotional, psychological and physical damages and his parents are seeking $1 each for loss of earnings and general damages.
One statement of defence had been filed as of Friday but wasn’t available to Global News due to backlogs at court.