In the course of my work I have spoken with many parents of disabled children. The issues and problems they face are enormous. However the most common concern that parents of school age children raise involves the lack of recognition for funding and support their children receive within the education system.
Many parents are aware of the problems with funding but few parents are aware of the practice of “Piggy Backing”. Those that are often remain unaware of the broader problems that this practice has created in terms of quantifying the current funding process.
For me the health and safety issues alone associated with placing highly vulnerable or severely disabled children alongside children with ‘behavioural issues’ is enough to raise several red flags. These red flags also include wider moral and ethical issues regarding educational equity and civil and human rights violations.
As an example, when speaking with the parent of a teenager with severe ADHD and Anger Management Issues ,the parent explained to me that her son had never qualified for funding or aide time due to his high IQ. Yet despite his high IQ her son was failing in several classes at high school. When asked why she thought that might be the parent reported that her son had a strong tendency toward violent outbursts and that he was frequently being expelled because of this. She also commented that while in school her son found it extremely hard to concentrate for more than 5 minutes at a time and that often his teachers reported that his behaviour (up-ending desks and chairs, being verbally abusive to staff and students, threatening acts of bodily harm to self and others) disrupted the class.
Despite all of these issues her son was still in school. I asked the parent how she’d managed to keep her son in school. She then revealed that her son, despite not qualifying for funding, did indeed have a teacher’s aide who worked with him daily within the school environment. The individual support he received came via a teacher’s aide initially employed to work with a teenager with Down Syndrome whose level of funding allowed for a full time, one on one aide, for the entirety of the school day.
The parent then described how her son had been accessing the support of the teenager with Down Syndrome’s aide for the last 6 years. This “Piggy Backing” onto another child’s aide began in grade 5 when despite placing her son on Ritilan as requested by the school, his aggressive behaviours continued. His teacher at the time, out of desperation, teamed her son up with the child with Down Syndrome and his aide as that child was often excused from being in the class room in order to take part in one on one activities with the aide elsewhere while the rest of the class worked on. The parent reported that this worked for her son and that all concerned were much happier with his being able to leave the classroom.
It worked so well that the following year in grade 6 the parent specifically requested that her son be placed in the same class as the young fellow with Down’s Syndrome. The school happily obliged and the process of “Piggy Backing” continued.
When it came time to choose a high school for her son the parent admitted to asking the aide which high school the lad with Down Syndrome would be going too and ensured that her son enrolled in the same one. The parent also then had a meeting with the Principal at the new high school to specifically request, once again, that her son be placed in the same classes as the “boy with the aide”. This request was honoured and the “Piggy Backing” continued unabated for the next 4 years, during which time the teenager with ADHD had been expelled from school for violent and aggressive behaviour no less than 6 times.
I asked the parent how the young lad with Down Syndrome reacted to her son when he became violent. The parent admitted that she had no idea as this had never been viewed as an issue of concern to her and she stated that the lad with Down Syndrome “didn’t seem able to learn or do much of anything so I don’t suppose it matters much to him”. I asked her if she’d ever met the other boy’s mother or spoken to her. The answer was no followed quickly by the statement that , “Well really it’s nothing to do with her. It’s organised by the school.”
At this point I’d like to state that from all accounts, in speaking with this mum, she is a very loving and caring parent who is facing the challenges of raising a very demanding son and trying as best she can to see that her son receives access to help and support within the school system. In short she is playing the hand she’s been dealt to the best of her ability and few of us could criticise her for that. The fact however that the help and support her son receives may be coming at the expense of another child within an institutionally and systematically endorsed setting does however worry me.
Why should it be that in order for an aggressive and violent teenager with ADHD to receive support within school, an otherwise vulnerable and placid teenager with Down Syndrome has to be placed within the line of fire of such behaviours? This disturbs me greatly and I can’t help but wonder if the other mother knows that this is her son’s schooling experience?
One would hope that at some point during her sons IEP meetings that the situation of sharing an aide with an overly aggressive student might have been discussed but who knows? And who knows what behaviours and thoughts that teenager with Down Syndrome may have taken home with him? Was he distressed by his exposure to the other boy’s aggressive and violent behaviour? Did he and his family experience nights where the he could not settle as the result of that exposure? Did his vocabulary of swear words increase? Did anyone check to see if the lad with Down Syndrome had been hurt in anyway during any of the outbursts? Was the boy’s mother ever even informed of the arrangement that her son was being exposed to for past the 6 years?
The fact that parent of the teenager with ADHD has never once in 6 years spoken to or met the other boys mother bothers me because it means that in all that time there has never once been a consultative meeting process occur in which the needs of both boys together have been discussed in relation to the teaching strategies applied to both boys in tandem within the school.
It indicates to me that there is a good chance that the other mother has never been informed of the situation nor given the opportunity as an advocate for her own child to voice her opinion regarding the situation.
This matter also violates several human rights issues. The key ones being the right to personal safety, to being fully informed of any and all institutional practices that impact on your child and the right to expect the invocation of fully informed consent before any such institutional practices are agreed to.
Disability rights should include the rights of all disabled adults and children and their families to be safe, to be supported, to be informed and to have the issue of their consent taken more fully into account. I’m not sure the practice of “Piggy Backing” under such circumstances can be seen to uphold any of those rights for any of the people concerned. Yet this is what is taking place within our schools and being sanctioned by our wider education system.
Though this is a very specific example and there may be cases in which the format of “Piggy Backing” may convincingly be argued to have worked, the point still remains that “Piggy Backing” is a practice that has the capacity to expose the most vulnerable in our society to the most aggressive and all within a educationally sanctioned setting.
Shouldn’t we at the very least be asking why this is being allowed to happen?