Special school takes legal action to prevent return of child with autism

Covid-19 school closures were ‘major contributory factor’ in boy’s behaviour

Stepping Stones Special School expelled the boy  over ‘serious breaches’ of its code of behaviour. Photograph: Alan Betson

Stepping Stones Special School expelled the boy over ‘serious breaches’ of its code of behaviour. Photograph: Alan Betson

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A special school for children with complex needs is taking legal action in a bid to prevent a boy with autism from being readmitted on the basis that his behaviour has put staff and students at risk.

The 15-year-old boy, who has a moderate to severe intellectual disability and is non-verbal, was expelled from Stepping Stones Special School in Co Meath last November due to “serious breaches” of its code of behaviour.

The school documented a number of incidents last September where the boy was alleged to have kicked a staff member, attempted to headbutt a therapist and hit staff members with his fists.

However, the school was directed last month by the Department of Education to arrange for his return to class after finding that his expulsion was not warranted.

A three-person committee under Section 29 of the Education Act found that all “reasonable efforts to allow the boy participate and benefit from education had not been fully exhausted”.

The committee judged the fact that the boy had been out of school for six months due to school closures linked to the Covid-19 pandemic were a “major contributory factor” in the frequency of the incidents.

It said it was possible to vindicate the rights of the school staff to a safe place of work while engaging outside supports to explore whether the boy could continue in school and receive education which was “vital to his wellbeing and development”.

The principal of the school declined to comment on the finding when contacted by The Irish Times.

The parents of the boy were told by the school in writing last week that it would challenge the Section 29 appeals committee’s findings by way of judicial review shortly.

The school, which has 30 pupils, has a staffing ratio of 1:1 with 26 special needs assistants and five classroom teachers.

Self-injurious behaviour

In a report to the school’s board of management last October, the school principal recommended that the boy be expelled following incidents over a two-week period in September. They included several instances where members of staff were struck causing them harm along with self-injurious behaviour and disruption to the education of other children.

The principal’s report also included details of previous incidents prior to last September including an alleged headbutting incident in 2015 which resulted in a staff member suffering a concussion, and an incident in January 2020 where a staff member reported being hit 15 times.

In the appeal hearing, the boy’s parents acknowledged that their son had behaved in ways that caused harm to staff members. However, they said his multiple diagnosed disabilities resulted in challenging behaviour and that special schools should have the staff, professional training and resources to manage children such as their son.

They said pupils who were non-verbal and had challenges in understanding languages communicated their needs and emotions through a range of behaviours which could be challenging.

The family argued that the return to school last September was a very significant transition and challenge which caused their son high anxiety and stress, and he needed time and support to adjust.

The family also pointed out that they had consented to the use of a “quiet room” as an alternative classroom for one-to-one support in the event that his classroom was temporarily unavailable and would not be used as a seclusion room.

The Section 29 appeals committee, however, concluded from evidence presented that the boy had spent a significant proportion of time in this one-to-one room and was isolated from his peers and class group, even though it was reported by his parents that he was sociable and enjoyed interacting with others.

Psychological assessment

While the school’s code of behaviour asked if “psychological assessment or counselling had been sought” in cases where there were breaches, the school principal confirmed that it had not been sought.

In addition, while the school was advised by a special educational needs organiser to seek the support of a State-funded behaviour advisory service last September, the committee heard that it appeared a formal request for this support had not been made until after the boy was expelled on November 10th last.

An educational welfare officer also gave evidence that there were external agencies which could have been asked for help.

In its findings, the appeals committee accepted that the safety of staff and students had been put at risk by the boy’s behaviour. However, the appeals committee concluded that all reasonable efforts to enable him to participate in and benefit from education had not been fully exhausted.

It said the boy, having been out of school for six months due to the pandemic, persuaded the appeals committee that to “enable his transition back to school, adequate time needs to be provided for the necessary planning and supports to be put in place, including reaching out to support agencies… for this reason, the appeals committee concluded that the expulsion of [X] is not warranted…”