Dozens of students who attended Ontario-run schools for deaf children and their families have come forward, sharing disturbing experiences that highlight decades-long systemic issues at special needs schools.
“This is way bigger than we thought, we had no idea,” said one parent. “The stories we’ve heard are shocking.”
Last month, CityNews spoke to the family of a deaf girl who is preparing to bring a lawsuit against the Ontario government for the alleged mistreatment of their daughter at a Ministry of Education-run school. CityNews agreed to hide their identity to protect their daughter’s privacy.
The family alleges their daughter was abused at the Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton. They say school administrators failed to protect her from prolonged bullying that had a devastating impact on her mental health.
Since CityNews shared their story, at least 30 other families and students have revealed their own alleged traumas.
“We’ve heard the same thing over and over, from lots of people, deaf and hearing, all afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation,” said the parent.
The family has created deaftrauma.com, where families and students detail troubling stories, some recent and some going back decades.
A few of the story titles include, “I have no trust in anyone anymore,” “My self esteem was destroyed,” “I have been traumatized by the school admin” and “There is a problem with the deaf education system.”
On the site, the original family states that it’s not staff shortcomings that are causing the problems at Ontario’s schools for the deaf.
“They are awesome and they love the kids,” they write. “The problem has always been leadership and the culture of neglect, which they have perpetuated through two class action lawsuits in the past nine years.”
“This institution, with limited accountability has just wreaked havoc,” the parent told CityNews. “It’s just unbelievably cruel conduct and we’re very concerned for the safety of children.”
CityNews also spoke to a teacher who worked at Ernest C. Drury for 15 years. The teacher also asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. She says her first red flag came soon after she was hired, when in training she was taught how to restrain students.
“I was actually taught how to restrain a child,” she recalls. “That wasn’t in place for a very long period of time, but it struck me that, at the time, it was a very strange thing to be teaching the teachers, rather than crisis prevention and intervention which I had been trained in before.”
She alleged that as a staff member, she and other teachers were bullied and harassed by the principal, who had the support of administration. The teacher eventually had to take a year-long leave.
“There is always retaliation. Always. So with parents trying to make some difference, there is retaliation and they’re terrified their kids are going to bear the brunt of the retaliation,” she said. “What has to change is there has to be some sort of oversight.”
On deaftrauma.com, a parent whose daughter attended a school for the deaf, wrote about an incident that still haunts them years later. The parent explained their daughter was born deaf and had other physical disabilities, including a stomach-feeding tube and learning disabilities.
“One day I was there to pick her up. She was left in a very soiled diaper for the whole day with urine and stools inside,” they wrote. “I broke down in tears there. But they told me ‘sorry, we were short staffed…If you need proper care for your girl, you can contact the local MPP for this issue’.”
The parent added: “The administration struggle to provide proper support at times and often made us feel the school only wanted the students who are deaf with no other issues.”
Eventually, they say they put their daughter into a mainstream school: “Lucky for her, the special ed team in the hearing high school has better services for her.”
In other stories, which have not been independently verified by CityNews, former students allege being sexually assaulted by other children and staff at Ernest C. Drury, and when they reached out to administration for support, they allege their complaints were minimized and they were left to fend for themselves.
“The accountability is not the same as it would be in a school board and I think that’s why so many incidents have happened,” said the parent who launched the website.
In Ontario, special needs schools for deaf and blind students are run directly by the Ministry of Education. In 2016, the province settled a $15 million dollar class action lawsuit with former students who alleged they were physically and sexually abused at three schools for the deaf. Another lawsuit, involving as many as 1,000 children, was settled in 2012 for $8 million.
Currently, Ontario’s coroner is also investigating the death of Samuel Brown, a Brampton teen who died in 2018 while in the care of W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford.
The family CityNews spoke with has pulled their daughter from Ernest C. Drury. They have also given the Ontario government notice that they intend on filing a lawsuit against the province in 60 days. In it, the family alleges the school “failed to protect; failed to provide a safe environment, failed to supervise, failed to adequately investigate incidents of assault and harassment, impeded and misled investigators […] failed to implement adequate strategies to prevent future harm and failed to accommodate [her] disabilities.”
“Money is not the most important part of this claim — their daughter’s education is and their daughter’s safety is,” said Marshall Swadron, the family’s lawyer. “Unless the government comes through in a big way, the pattern is continuing.”
Both the attorney general’s office and the Ministry of Education say because this is the subject of litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment. But the Ministry of Education adds:
“The protection of students is our foremost priority. Ontario’s provincial and demonstration schools provide support, safety and meaningful learning opportunities for these students.”