EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
Advocates for students with disabilities have been ringing alarm bells for years about how often kids are excluded from the classroom because their needs can’t be accommodated by the school, warning the province can’t fix the problem because it doesn’t track how often it occurs.
Now that the province has begun collecting data on school exclusions, the same advocates are still dismayed: they say the province’s information is incomplete and inconsistent, and where it does exist it shows some alarmingly high numbers.
The Trillium obtained the province’s data on school exclusions and is revealing it for the first time. We filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request this spring after the NDP’s education critic and the Ontario Autism Coalition held a press conference to release the results of an informal survey they conducted tracking exclusions among their network.
They found that 78 children had missed 558.5 hours of school in Ontario — equivalent to 92 days — over two weeks.
The ministry’s data shows 374 students were excluded for 7,722 days in the 2021-22 school year. About half of the students — 184 — were receiving special education services.
This past spring, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told The Trillium he had data on school exclusions, but declined to share it.
"We're cognizant of data from the year prior," he’d said in a brief interview in the halls of Queen's Park. "And that's been informative for the government as we take action to better educate staff, support training, funding, and really try to change the culture where these kids are in schools, accommodated, respected, and more importantly, have an ability to learn in front of their peers with their teachers."
Ilinca Stefan, a staff lawyer at the ARCH Disability Law Centre, said the lack of publicly available data on exclusions allows boards to use the exclusions with impunity.
“Every once in a while, this shows up in the news, and people are shocked that it happens,” she told The Trillium.
“But there's no accountability for the school boards for excluding students with this unchecked power. Students with disabilities can and do sometimes just stay home for a year without getting any education. And under our current regime, that’s just perfectly lawful.”
Exclusions are allowed under provincial law when, according to the principal’s judgment, a student’s presence is determined to be “detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of the pupils.” They are distinct from suspensions and expulsions, and cannot be disciplinary in nature.
Advocates say this is why they are used for students with special needs, who cannot be disciplined for behaviour that results from their disability or a failure to accommodate it.
All of the boards that responded to The Trillium's questions said they were used for safety.
"Students are excluded for one reason only: safety," said a spokesperson for the Near North District School Board. "They are used as a short-term 'pause' that provides teams with the time needed to gather more information, additional resources, and put plans in place that will ensure the safety of the student and the safety of others."
"In the rare circumstances where exclusions have happened, they occurred when student safety, self and others, was unable to be maintained in the learning environment despite significant accommodations and supports," said a statement from the Peel District School Board.
Some boards said they’re also used for students involved in police investigations.
The stats on exclusions, obtained by FOI request, includes data for 62 of the province’s 76 boards: for the 2021-22 school year, of the 374 students excluded from classrooms, 184 of them were for students who receive special education services.
The total of 7,722 days is up from 5,695 days in 2020-21.
The highest total in 2021-22 was at Greater Essex County District School Board in the Brantford area, where 57 students missed 1,721 days, followed by Grand Erie District School Board in the Windsor area, where 20 students missed 1,653. Other boards had no documented exclusions, represented by a "-" in the data set. Some boards' data was incomplete for 2021-22.
There are 194 school days in a typical year.
The advocates The Trillium showed the data to warned it was woefully inadequate. Some large school boards reported no exclusions, which they felt was unlikely, while others have not yet reported their data. Complicating matters, the data available spans two school years when schools were periodically closed due to COVID.
The way data was calculated appeared to differ significantly between boards. Some — including the Grand Erie District School Board and the Near North District School Board — confirmed to The Trillium the data only reflects what advocates call “hard” exclusions — those that are documented and tend to last a significant period of time.
The Halton District School Board said in a statement it's one of the few boards that has a policy on exclusions and because of that it "may be misleading" to compare its numbers with other boards that don't have a formalized, documented process in place.
But advocates also say students most often experience “soft” or informal exclusions, that are not documented. A typical example is a principal will call home to say that there’s insufficient staff, often due to a shortage of educational assistants, and ask for the student to stay home for the day.
In other cases, the parent of a child with a disability might be asked to pick up their child early because they’re “having a hard day” and the school is worried about their ability to keep students safe.
Steve LeGault, a member of the Ontario Autism Coalition whose son was excluded for extended periods of time from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on both a hard and soft basis, said parents will agree to temporary soft exclusion to avoid the “threat” of documented hard exclusion that would keep the child out of school for longer.
"This is the thing that probably has a bigger effect on parents, but we don't even know: the data that they're required to collect is incomplete, and the data that they're not required to collect isn't present," he said, referring to "soft" exclusions.
Kate Dudley-Logue, a vice president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said these kinds of exclusions happen so frequently it’s impossible for some parents to hold onto their jobs.
“This is really, really difficult to manage,” she said. “And I honestly, I've seen in some of the parents support groups, families who just give up on it, they throw in the towel, they say like, this is pointless. I can't keep a job, so I’ll keep my kid home and homeschool them.”
Some boards said that kind of soft exclusion is prohibited — including the Near North District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board — in response to The Trillium’s questions.
And some boards said students are never excluded because of staffing shortages: the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, the Grand Erie District School Board, and the Halton District School Board.
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, where LeGault's son attends, also said soft and exclusions due to staffing shortages do not occur, even as LeGault said his son experienced both. A spokesperson for the board would not comment on individual cases.
And one school board, Near North District School Board, said students are never excluded for staff shortages but raised the prospect that entire classes could be closed because of them this year.
“As of yet, we have not shuttered classrooms due to E.A. shortages, however we expect that we could be in this position in this school year,” said a statement from the board’s safe schools team.
Both LeGault and Dudley-Logue make the case that most exclusions come down to insufficient staff, something many of the boards disputed. The advocates say that with enough support, any child with a disability can and should be accommodated at school, where they can learn and socialize with peers. When there's insufficient staffing, the kind of behaviour that might trigger an exclusion — for instance, LeGault's son was excluded after a "near miss" where he'd had tried to hit someone — can be avoided.
Properly trained staff know how to manage and avoid the triggers that lead to those incidents, they argue.
Stefan, the lawyer with the ARCH Disability Law Centre, said schools are required to accommodate a student's disability to the point of undue hardship, which "by law is a really high bar," and she sees exclusions as a measure of schools' inability to meet it.
She's had a few recent cases where that failure has meant the student has been segregated from their peers and sent to a portable with an educational assistant, getting neither education nor the socialization they need — an exclusion, but on school grounds.
When her law centre helps a family appeal an exclusion, they rely on Ontario's Human Rights Code.
"Regardless of a school's requirements or obligations under the Education Act, their human rights obligations not to discriminate against students with disabilities takes precedence," she said. "What we're arguing is that the appropriate individualized accommodations need to be in place for a student. And you know, even if that's inconvenient for a school or if it costs them money, that's not an appropriate defence or justification. It's really the right of every child to be in school."
If the province collected adequate data it could bear out what she and her colleagues see anecdotally, she said, that racialized students and students who experience language or communication barriers are excluded more often and for a longer duration.
On behalf of Lecce, Ontario's education minister, a spokesperson issued a statement saying that the province has increased funding for special education to $3.4 billion.
"Since taking office in 2018, we have funded the hiring of over 3,000 more educational assistants in schools, strengthened programs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and increased professional development opportunities for educators," Justin Saunders said. "To better support students and measure and drive transparency, since 2021, school boards have been required to record student enrolment and attendance each school year, including (the) total number of exclusions. We expect all school boards to abide by that expectation and work to better integrate and support children with special education needs."