A 12-year-old boy with autism protested in front of his Hamilton school on Monday, advocating for his right to be in class and feel supported at school.
“I want to be respected,” says Ivan Hooper.
Ivan was suspended from Queen Victoria Elementary school for five days after an incident with his educational assistant and another school staff member.
Ivan says he was feeling anxious around the other children during lunch, and so he ran from his class to the office. Ivan’s mom Julie Johnson says he was chased by his educational assistant, who yelled at him. Ivan hit the EA, and another staff member who entered the room and yelled at him.
Johnson tells CityNews that her son was suspended for five days, and that this wasn’t the first time. She says she has ongoing issues with getting support for Ivan from the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.
“Ivan was diagnosed at 6 years old with autism, and from that point on it has been a real struggle to find accommodation for him,” she says. “School is a trigger for him, and they are well aware of that. Ivan is not a violent person. He doesn’t have outbursts in public.”
The school board would not comment on the specifics of Ivan’s situation, citing privacy concerns.
“This is a very complex situation and as a board we want to make it clear that we’re listening to our students, and we are listening to our parents,” says Todd White, chair of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. “Our priority is to get Ivan back into school with the support that he needs.”
Johnson says that her son has been bullied since grade one. For instance, a group was created called the ‘Let’s Kill Ivan Club.’
When he would act out at school his parents say he was suspended or set aside, causing them to question the training of Hamilton Wenthworth District School Board EA’s.
In a statement, Manny Figueiredo, the board’s director of education, adds that the safety and well-being of students and staff is paramount.
“We take mitigating circumstances into account, but sometimes we need a window of time for parents and staff to problem-solve. We do not like to have students away from school but we have to take everyone’s safety into account.
Figueiredo says that experts in specialized learning have been working with Ivan’s family to support him at school. They’ll be meeting again this week.
The Ministry of Education also weighed in, telling CityNews “Ontario has significantly expanded a range of dedicated supports in schools for students with autism, including specialized training of over 30,000 educators in [applied behaviour analysis] methods, dedicated transition teams for students with autism […] and new after-school skills development programs.”
Further, the ministry notes that school boards are expected to develop Individual education plans for every student with a need for special education. The plans are designed with feedback from school staff, parents and the student involved.
However, child and youth advocate Irwin Elman says that even the best-laid plans don’t always come through.
“The amount of promise to a student like Ivan and then the lived experience of students like Ivan …the gap isn’t a gap, it’s a chasm between promise and what’s real,” he says, adding, “I believe the ministry knows this gap exists.”
The Hamilton board says its educational assistants are property trained, and that they have experts in supporting children with autism spectrum disorder. But Elman says there’s room for improvement.
“They’re stretched and in terms of their skill set,” says Elman. “Perhaps they are not doing what they went to school for. An EA is an Education Assistant. They’re supposed to help with learning, but in my experience a lot of the EA’s are helping with behaviour management so other kids can learn, and that’s a problem.”