Ontario family of child with cerebral palsy fights for answers after he was hurt at school

WATCH ABOVE: A year since their son with cerebral palsy arrived home with bruises on his arm, claiming teachers hurt him, the family is still seeking answers. As Caryn Lieberman reports, they want to know what happened and why the boy's father says his son was restrained in a chair at school.

As Rachelle Vlaad reflects on the last year, she pauses often to take a breath and wipe tears. Her son Ryan Vlaad, who is 10 years old with cerebral palsy, is healing emotionally from an incident at school that has led to many sleepless nights.

“It’s taken a really hard, emotional toll on me, on his brother and sister … I’ve lost many, many hours of sleep over this — I still do,” said Rachelle.

It was March 29 2018, when, as usual, Cary Vlaad went to pick up all three of the children at St. Dominic Catholic Elementary School in Lindsay. The teacher warned him, when he arrived, that Ryan had a ‘bad day.’

“I said OK, well where is he? And they pointed across like kiddy corner to another room … when I went in to see him he was sitting in this little brown chair strapped in,” recalled Cary.

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Ryan uses a special chair in the classroom with stabilizers, but his father insisted that is not the one he found his son bound to that day.

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“His chair was light coloured with blue material down the back with arms where this was a solid chair little with no arms, tiny,” described Cary.

“[Ryan] was upset. He was crying and yelling.”

After dropping him off at home and heading out to hockey practice with his other son, Rachelle helped Ryan get ready for bed. That is when she said she made a disturbing discovery.

“What happened to your arm?” she said she asked Ryan.

“And he looked at it and he said, ‘Teachers hurt me.’ So I said, ‘How Ryan?’ and he told me teachers hurt him and he showed me by grabbing his arm.”

Through tears, Rachelle recalled asking her son a second time.

“Ryan, how did you get those bruises? And he told us again, ‘Teachers at school hurt me,'” she said.

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“I pulled out the school picture that day and I gave it to him and I said, ‘Show me who hurt you Ryan.’ So he pointed to his teacher and said, ‘She hurts me and he pointed to the an EA in the class and said, ‘She hurts me all the time.'”

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The family said they went to the local police station. The Kawartha Lakes Police Service will neither confirm or deny an incident or investigation, but the Vlaads shared a copy of the police report with Global News, including pictures taken of Ryan at the police station (which show his bruises being measured).The Children’s Aid Society was notified.

In an audio recording from April 2018, a CAS worker can be heard asking Ryan, “Do you know what happened?”

“The teacher,” Ryan could be heard saying.

The CAS worker then asked, “The teacher, what did the teacher do?”

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“Hurt me, did this,” Ryan replied.

The Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board (PVNCCDSB) investigated the following September.

The “Report of Board’s investigation of student Ryan Vlaad” was shared with Global by the Vlaad family.

In the introduction, the report referenced the CAS report’s two main issues: the use of a lap belt, which was part of a chair that Ryan used, and the relocation of Ryan to a separate room while he was in a heightened state.

As part of the report’s findings, the board detailed the incident in question.

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“Ryan was in a heightened state from the beginning of the day starting at the daycare. Ryan became heightened again in the afternoon following lunch,” it said.

“When Ryan’s aggression continued, he was removed from the classroom.”

The report noted Ryan was moved to the hallway in a chair and then to another class “until approximately 3 p.m. when his father picked him up there.”

“Ryan was supervised from right outside the room,” the report said.

That part weighs especially heavily on his parents.

“He’s in there by himself, door is closed, could he have hurt himself? There are just so many things that go through your mind when you find your child like that,” said Cary.

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An emotional Rachelle added, “He could have seriously gotten hurt. Somebody could have entered that room. He could have seizured during that time because he has absent seizures. Nobody was there to care for him.”

The PVNCCDSB said it would not comment specifically about the case due to “privacy legislation.” But spokesperson Galen Eagle did respond to a number of questions.

“We can reiterate that we do not use “restraint” chairs in any of our schools and any chair in our system that is used for stability and is equipped with a support harness has been prescribed by a medical professional,” he said when asked about the chair.

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Next, he was asked about the relocation of Ryan to another classroom.

“Where there is an immediate concern for the safety of a student, students and/or staff members, a student may be relocated to an alternate setting without such a safety plan in place,” he said.

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“However, the Board’s practice is that when a need has been identified, that this need would be documented in the student IEP and/or safety plan in consultation with parents/guardians and school staff.”

According to PVNCCDSB documentation, principals are responsible for ensuring that safety support plans are “developed collaboratively with school staff members, and that consultation with parents/guardians/caregivers occurs as part of the process.”

While a plan had previously been sent home to the Vlaads, they said they never signed it because they questioned who reviewed and approved the plan.

The conclusion of the PVNCCDSB, as noted in its report, is that “both the use of the lap belt and the details of where Ryan would be relocated if he was in a heightened state should have been in Ryan’s safety plan.”

However, it also found that “all action taken by staff at St. Dominic was taken in good faith to keep Ryan and other students safe.”

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But the Vlaads said Ryan did not feel safe for a long time.

“He would start to hum out of nowhere, something would trigger it and he’d hum and rock and we would all hug him and tell him how much he was loved and not to be scared because they wouldn’t hurt him anymore,” she said, crying.

Ryan was out of class for several weeks after the 2018 incident. His parents said he is now doing well and that they continue to fight for answers about what exactly happened. They also want to know what happened to the chair Cary said he found Ryan bound to.

The family said they filed a complaint with the Ontario College of Teachers, detailing the bruises on Ryan’s body and alleging he was physically restrained to a chair at least 3-5 times.

READ MORE: New report finds systemic use of restraint and seclusion in B.C. schools

The complaint also noted that there were no intervention reports, no attempts to contact parents, that Ryan’s safety was at risk when two people lifted him in a chair and carried him into another room where they said he was restrained for two hours.

The family asked the Ontario College of Teachers to review the school board’s investigation and remove both the principal and teacher from their roles and have no contact with their son.

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Meanwhile, Eagle told Global News a directive was sent out in the wake of the incident.

“In the fall of 2018, the Board’s special education department sent guidelines to all special education staff and school administrators in the Board with respect to the use of support harnesses in specialized chairs,” he said.

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“The guidelines indicate that prior to using a support harness on a prescribed chair, the school principal or designate requires clear, written direction from the prescribing medical professional as to how the harness is to be used and under what circumstances.”

As well, the guidelines provide staff direction on how to document the potential use of such a harness and direct staff to consult with parents on its usage.