Parents of autistic boy resist ‘graduation’
A schoolboy with severe autism has been refused permission to repeat a school year despite backing from his teacher and doctor.
His parents said their son had the mental age of a five-year-old and, because of disruption to his education caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, was not prepared to move on to Dellwood Middle School — and they have refused to send him there.
The 11-year-old boy was on the special autism programme at Paget Primary School and also takes classes at autism charity Tomorrow's Voices.
The parents told education officials: “This transition is even more traumatic for those children on the autism spectrum, as they do not process change well at all.
“This transition can be counterproductive if the decision is made based on spacing availability and chronological age, as opposed to functioning level and capabilities. Age should never be a determining factor for this change, especially for a child on the spectrum, which is a developmental disability.
“The child's functional abilities are what is critical here. We know that moving him now will be detrimental.”
The couple added: “Our son is, far and away, not at a level where being in middle school will be good for him, socially, academically or functionally, and we cannot allow him or us to be abused by a system which we, as parents, pay to protect and school him.”
But requests for a repeat year were rejected by Kalmar Richards, the Commissioner of Education, Valerie Robinson-James, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education on behalf of Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, and the minister.
The father said: “We felt as parents that he needed to do another year — we were advised by his teacher at Paget Primary School and his doctor at Boston Children's Hospital, that he would benefit from being retained.”
The boy's parents, who asked not be named, said they wrote a letter to Ms Richards on June 1 and she replied that their request would be reviewed. But the parents got a school orientation package from Dellwood Middle School on June 10 that thanked them for their application to enrol their son at the school.
The parents claimed that they never made the application and the orientation pack they were sent was not suitable for a child with special needs.
The father said: “The Ministry of Education registered him at Dellwood without even asking our consent.
“We felt like he was just a number on a list. They made us feel like we had no say in the matter.
“It is the wrong decision. We know he can't stay there for ever, but he needs one more year.”
The parents said they had received a verbal recommendation from their son's doctor at Boston Children's Hospital last month that their son should be allowed to retake the year.
Elizabeth Harstad said that the case was “exceptional” because of the pandemic restrictions and that the boy's severe symptoms meant he needed more preparation for a change of school.
The parents added they had also been given a verbal recommendation from their son's teacher at Paget Primary.
A senior therapist at Tomorrow's Voices wrote: “Major changes and transitions should be systematically planned for.”
The parents wrote in one letter to Government: “School closes early this year. That didn't give our son a chance to transition ... the changes between environment and people can cause regression.”
Tina Duke, who was the acting assistant director at the Department of Education's Student Services section and a former principal at Dellwood Middle School, sent an invitation to the parents for a transition meeting on Zoom on September 2.
But the parents were not happy about the change of school and the meeting did not go ahead.
Ms James-Robinson wrote on August 10 that Mr Rabain had asked for advice from Department of Education officials and the boy's teacher at Paget Primary.
Ms James-Robinson wrote that the officials had said that the boy would “progress much quicker in his developmental areas if he is among age-appropriate peers”.
The letter added: “The shared transitioning to Dellwood Middle School where the class size is smaller will prove beneficial and lend to focusing on individual needs.
“Therefore, he will gain greater independence as he continues developing in his functional skills.”
The parents made inquiries that confirmed the class size of nine pupils at Paget Primary was adequate.
Mr Rabain sent a final refusal on September 11, the Friday before the start of the new school year.
The parents added that another pupil had been allowed to retake the year at Paget Primary.
The father said: “It is our duty as parents to look out for what's best for our child and, by extension, other parents who may be going through a similar situation.”
The boy is at present only attending the Tomorrow's Voices programme.
In response, the education commissioner said last night that the department handles student placement “with the students' best interests at heart” and that information provided by parents does factor in to the decision.
Ms Richards said that Dellwood Middle School has an “excellent” programme and services for autistic students.
She added: “Additionally, we would have to investigate the circumstances around the statement that another child was allowed to retake a year at the school, if that is the fact.
“I am aware that the parents did contact the Minister of Education, the Hon Diallo Rabain, JP, MP. Minister Rabain refutes the claim that he was rude to the parent when he called and emphatically states he did not hang up on the parent.
“Minister Rabain did follow up and requested that the matter be looked into with urgency. When this was done, a response was sent to the parents via a letter.”