Shannon Newman has resolved to take his son to and from school everyday until the end of the school year rather than have him take the bus.
Newman’s son, nine-year-old Zachary, is autistic. He attends Marie Sharpe Elementary School and early last week he was discovered by his father walking home alone along Mackenzie Avenue, the second time in several months.
Newman says his son was left alone at the school for a brief period; he had been told by staff to wait at the gate for the bus after school while staff collected other kids. That was when he apparently decided to walk home. This is a concern, says Newman, because Zachary is not always aware of his surroundings.
“Safety is a big issue with him. He does this thing with his fingers and he concentrates on it and he looks at it and his eyes go crossed … and he gets so focussed on that I’ve seen him walk into walls.” When he discovered Zachary on Mackenzie Avenue he was doing just that.
Newman says although he’s concerned with the school’s attempts at keeping his son safe — he says the school is currently considering a revised plan of action for Zachary — he isn’t necessarily taking issue with the school, rather he blames a lack of overall funding and training for educators and education assistants who support autistic children.
“I’m not pointing at the school; I’m pointing at the system and if the system had more funding and more education assistants available this situation probably would not have occurred in the first place. That’s my focus.”
Newman says it’s important that school staff know that even if it’s out of character for an autistic child to wander off it can still happen.
Diane Wright, superintendant of School District 27, would not comment on this situation, citing privacy. However, Wright did say the district works hard to ensure staff are trained to meet the needs of autistic and special need students. For example, says Wright, for a number of years the district has offered training to both teachers and teachers’ assistants in the summer every other year; teachers’ assistants have also had the district’s support and funding to access human services training through Thompson Rivers University.
As for funding special needs students, Wright says the Ministry of Education provides money for students who have a specific needs criteria. The district also provides funding for children who may not meet the ministry’s criteria but who require additional assistance.
“The district spends far more in supporting our children with special needs than is received through that funding for teacher aid time, far more. This district has always been very cognizant in trying to meet that need,” says Wright, adding despite declining enrollment the district maintains its teacher assistant levels.
Zachary has attended the school since kindergarten and this is the second time he has left the school premises without supervision.
Calls to the principle of Marie Sharpe elementary for this story was not returned to press time.