By Kevin Maimann StarMetro Edmonton
EDMONTON—Parents who say their 12-year-old son was locked naked in a seclusion room at a school east of Edmonton, and ended up covered in his own feces, are suing Elk Island Public Schools and the provincial government.
Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel say that on Sept. 23, 2015, staff at Clover Bar Junior High in Sherwood Park emailed them a photo of their son, who has autism and is non-verbal, while he was in that state and told them to come pick him up.
Addressing media Friday, Henschel tearfully recalled arriving at the school 45 minutes to an hour later and being directed to the room where his son was being kept.
“I could hear my son quietly whimpering,” he said.
“When I looked inside the room, it’s hard to describe my feelings.”
Henschel said he had to wash the boy in the nearest space available, which was a janitorial closet. There, Henschel says he spent 30 to 40 minutes cleaning him with dish soap before dressing him in clothes provided by staff and taking him home.
Henschel said he does not know how long his son was in the room before he was called.
“There is no reason under any circumstance, in my opinion, to treat a human being like this,” he said.
Oakes, shaking, said the incident has caused her three years of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This was inhumane. It was treating him like he was an animal,” she said.
Oakes said she called the school’s vice-principal from work that day while Henschel was driving to the school.
She added their son has a severe gastrointestinal disease and questioned why none of the staff stepped in to help him.
“To leave him in there like that, as a mother you think, ‘Oh my God, what if he would have slipped and hit his head and died?’” Oakes said.
The parents are seeking $250,000 in damages for injuries to their son’s emotional and psychological well-being, and $25,000 in damages for injuries to his physical well-being.
The lawsuit names the minister of education as well as the Elk Island Public Schools district, the superintendent and associate superintendent, the director of inclusive learning, the student support services consultant, the principal and assistant principal, and a teacher.
The parents said in a statement of claim that the defendants deprived their son of the right to liberty and security of the person, thus violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by placing him in a locked room in an unclothed and unsupervised state.
Inclusion Alberta launched an online survey Friday to gather data on the use of seclusion and physical restraint of students with disabilities in Alberta schools.
The survey will also compile stories from other parents.
The group’s CEO Trish Bowman said the practice is prevalent, but there is currently no data available on how many seclusion rooms exist.
“There is no provincial source of information. so that’s part of what we’re hoping to begin to get an understanding of through our survey,” she said.
Bruce Uditsky, CEO Emeritus of Inclusion Alberta, said he wants to see an end to isolation and solitary confinement in classrooms, and that government action is long overdue.
He said there are proven, positive intervention strategies for students with behavioural difficulties, and claims Alberta Education is failing to enforce the School Act to protect these children.
Alberta government guidelines state that parental permission must be obtained in order to use “seclusion timeout” as a strategy in the behaviour management of children, and that the student must be moved to a timeout room that is safe and where they are constantly supervised.
“This, in fact, is not about the use of seclusion rooms, it’s in fact about inhumane, degrading treatment of a vulnerable child,” Uditsky said. “It’s about a lack of common human decency and compassion.”
Alberta Education Minister David Eggen provided a statement saying he is “very concerned” with the situation and student safety must always be a top priority.
“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,” he said.
Elk Island Public Schools spokesperson Laura McNabb said in a statement that the school district 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,” she said.
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