A Surrey mother of a boy with autism is furious with a new deal she says is detrimental to some children with disabilities.
A Letter of Understanding has been struck between the Surrey School District and CUPE 728 that formalizes a process for parents of children with special needs who wish to apply to keep their child’s Education Assistant (EA) for the next school year.
This “continuity” was an issue raised last June, when a group of about 40 parents protested at a Surrey Board of Education meeting, saying the absence of continuation was creating unsafe environments and was not in the best interest of children with special needs. Parents argued that children’s learning can be hampered when starting off the school year with a new EA, saying it can sometimes take months for new EAs to learn how to communicate and work effectively with the child.
Jennifer Newby, whose son has autism, says the new deal sets out “very narrow criteria” about who can apply and “does nothing” to alleviate parents’ concerns.
Newby said it’s disappointing for parents who “felt they had been heard” at a September board meeting where trustees unanimously voted in support of the creation of the LOU.
“We’re having parents now told they can’t even request continuity because the criteria in the letter is so extreme,” said Newby, who has filed a Human Rights Tribunal Complaint against the district and union over the continuity issue. She was also among parents who rallied last summer.
Newby shared a copy of the LOU with the Now-Leader, which the district confirms took effect in February.
She takes particular issue with one stipulation outlined in the agreement: That students must have a safety plan in place in order to request continuity.
“It’s absurd,” said Newby.
“My safety plan was allowed to expire because my son is doing well,” she said of her son Brian, who is in Grade 3. “If we have another worker that comes through and isn’t a good fit, we go right back to the safety plan. We have regression of skills, a complete reset on their learning ability because they’re wasting time re-familiarizing with new staff instead of being taught.”
Because of this, Newby worries the lack of continuity could also increase chances of aggressive behaviour when children are matched with a new EA.
Newby also takes issue with the LOU’s requirement that parents agree to drop an Applied Behaviour Analysis Support Worker (ABA SW) designation in order to apply to keep their child’s EA.
“Roughly half of the ABA SW positions here in Surrey are filled with EAs,” she said. “If we are forced to give up this designation, it will decimate a highly successful program.”
However school district spokesman Doug Strachan told the Now-Leader Surrey is “progressive” in being one of the only B.C. districts to formalize a process for continuity requests.
“We’re miles ahead in trying to accommodate parents’ wishes for EA continuity,” said Strachan. “The LOU provides robust, structured transparent and collaborative approach to ensure proper and through consideration is given to requests for EA continuity. It takes out as much as possible the interpretations and applies more rigour.”
Asked about the safety plan requirement, Strachan acknowledged this would be required for consideration of continuity under the LOU.
“Student needs, including safety plans, are evaluated regularly,” he noted. “Decisions to remove safety plans are also carefully considered, including any triggers, and staff working and supporting the student are aware of the student’s needs and behavioural issues.”
Exacerbating the situation, Strachan said, is a shortage of ABA workers. He said these workers tend to stay in positions longer because although part of the union, they are not subject to the same seniority process. There simply aren’t enough ABAs, he said, so EAs are put in positions.
Strachan said something that’s often lost in these discussions is that the district’s goal is to support students with special needs to get them to a point they’re comfortable “interacting with any adult.”
“There are occasions where a student with a specific EA has developed what’s called instructional control with a student,” he said. “What that means is the student won’t respond to the same instructional methods and techniques and tasks assigned or instructed by a different person.There isn’t really a need for continuity if the student will take the same instructions from a different EA.”
That said, Strachan appreciates the parents’ concerns. “But the district, of course, like any other enterprise has limited resources,” he said, noting seniority is the driver of the union.
Strachan stressed the significance of the union being “willing to negotiate provisions like this LOU, that allows for the removal of seniority as the number one consideration.”
Laurie Larsen, Surrey Board of Education chair, said getting the agreement in place was a priority for the board.
“We believe a more clearly articulated process is in the best interests of students, as well as staff and our CUPE local.”
Larsen said she “looks forward to hearing from staff how the LOU is working over the coming months as new practices and processes” are rolled out.
“We understand the issue of continuity and will do our best to accommodate requests that make sense, but we also need to respect the collective agreement,” she added.
Trustee Terry Allen said the district “will adapt and the union will adapt in the best interests of the children” and that the LOU is a “huge step forward.”
“This clearly shows a respect for what parents have to say. No matter what, the needs of the students must come first.”
This school year, the Surrey School Distrct says it has received 35 requests for EA continuity.
In the previous school year, the district received 30 such requests. According to the district, four were withdrawn before they proceeded, and six requests were granted. Strachan said there were “20 requests outstanding at the end of June,” adding that “a lot of the postings, when they conclude at the end of the school years, a lot of EAs remain in place that way. I don’t have that number of where it finally ended up.”
Strachan said the district currently has an estimated 3,000 students who receive EA support.
Human Rights Tribunal complaints
Jennifer Newby has a Human Rights Tribunal complaint filed against Surrey School District and CUPE 728 in which she says she wants “systemic change.”
In the complaint, Newby asks that any family that requests continuity – where the school and/or home teams are supportive, as well as the worker – be granted approval for as many years as is deemed to be in the child’s best interests. The complaint also asks that seniority only be used to place support workers for families “who have not yet found someone who can demonstrate instructional control.”
Her complaint comes after one filed by Nicole Kaler in 2017. Kaler sought to keep her daughter’s EA for the remainder of ther time in Surrey’s school district.
Kaler said it’s a fight she won with the help of a pro bono lawyer.
In 2018, the district said Kaler’s complaint was “dismissed,” but she provided documents that stated she withdrew. She said she did so after the district assured her that it would prioritize “the rights of students, protected in the Human Rights Code, over the collective agreement moving forward.”