Durham mother seeking answers after autistic son leaves school, walks through woods in a storm, found by neighbour

After a child with autism managed to leave his school during a snowstorm earlier this month, the parents of the child and the Ontario Autism Coalition want to know why this happened. Shauna Hunt has the details.

By Meredith Bond and Shauna Hunt

After her seven-year-old autistic son went missing for over a half hour from his school this January, a Durham mother is speaking out against the administration that she says lied about the circumstances and the lack of resources that allowed it to happen.

Zak is in Grade 2 at a Durham District School Board school. He has an educational assistant assigned to him due to his risk of elopement.

His mother, Neelam Rasheid, said on Jan. 9 this year, a day with one of the first snowstorms of the year, she received an email from the principal of the school, informing her Zak had gone missing for three to four minutes and had been found by a neighbour.

“Call it, mother’s intuition, but a million questions started to [rush through] my head. Who was this person that found my son? How does my son know them? He’s only seven and we know everyone that knows him,” explained Rasheid. “Needless to say, my conversation with the principal left a very unsettling feeling in my stomach.”

She decided to Google the address of the neighbour who found her son and discovered it was at least a nine to 11 minutes walk away from the school. After picking Zak up, she headed to the home to get some answers.

“To my dismay, what followed next has left me in shock until today. That neighbour who I now refer to as my son’s guardian angel, Katie, advised me that she had seen my son from her kitchen window, walking through the woods in the winter storm in only a t-shirt. He had on no jacket, no hat, no boots,” said Rasheid.

Katie, along with her neighbour started to follow Zak in hopes of getting him inside.

“They eventually caught up to him at the end of the woods to a busy four-lane road. My son was found running back and forth on the road with vehicles having to slow down to avoid hitting him. The two women stopped traffic and brought him back to safety.”

It was at least 35 minutes since Zak had left the school and was found drenched from head to toe and shivering.

Rasheid said not only did the school lie about how long Zak had been missing, but there was a clear safety protocol in place that was not followed.

“Police should have been called as well as us the parents not notified via email. Had I not spoken to that neighbour, I would have never known what my son had endured that day.”

In a meeting with school administration, Rasheid said the principal continued with the same narrative until she presented evidence that contradicted it, at which time the principal apologized.

“I have lost all trust in the school and their ability to keep my son safe. The feeling of dropping off your child at school and clutching that cell phone in your hand all day waiting for the next call from the school continues to be unbearable,” explained Rasheid.

The Durham District School Board said during the incident, the student had been temporarily moved away from their direct support personnel and due to the urgency of the situation, their immediate focus was ensuring the student’s safety.

“We appreciate the support of the community in helping to locate the student and are grateful the student is safe. We regret the situation and are committed to reviewing and reinforcing our safety protocol to prevent future occurrences,” read their statement.

Ontario Autism Coalition Vice-President, Kate Dudley Logue, said these incidents are happening, affecting children with disabilities, due to chronic underfunding of schools.

“We used to talk about whether kids with special education needs were receiving meaningful access to curriculum. Today, we are more concerned with whether or not our kids are receiving enough support to just be at school safely at all.”

She adds Zak’s story could’ve ended a lot worse.

“The next time this story could end a lot more tragically, and the fault will not lie with our educators who are doing everything they can to keep our kids safe and keep their education strong. It’s going to fall in the hands of this government.”

NDP Education critic Chandra Pasma said several school boards have been forced to pay millions of dollars more on special education because of this underfunding.

The TDSB is paying $67.6 million and the Durham District School Board where Zac is a student is paying $3 million more.

“School boards are paying more than they’re receiving on special education because the needs are great and they are growing. But there is a limit to the ability of school boards to take funds from other areas to pay for special education when education funding falls short in every category,” said Pasma.

The shortage of education workers has also put a limit on how many staff are available to support children with disabilities or special needs, explained Pasma.

“As a result, we are seeing every single day in this province that kids are going without the support they need and deserve, not just to learn but to stay safe. And some children are being excluded from our school system entirely because schools cannot afford the resources to keep them safe,” added Dudley Logue.

Carrie Boisvert, Vice President of CUPE Local 218 which represents education workers in Durham, agrees.

“There are simply not enough educational assistants currently working in Ontario public schools to meet the needs of students. It’s an issue of safety. The money allocated by the government to school boards to hire workers allows only for minimal support for students. This doesn’t keep kids safe, and it doesn’t lead to success,” Boisvert explained.

Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said he has asked the board for a full account of the incident.

“What happened to Zak Rasheid is unacceptable and should have never occurred. I have asked the board to provide a full account of the incident and to develop a plan to ensure this never happens to any student again,” read the statement.

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