Disabled kids' parents threaten lawsuit against schools

By Kate Shuttleworth

Antonia Hannah and 7-year-old son Max. Photo / Chris Loufte
Antonia Hannah and 7-year-old son Max. Photo / Chris Loufte

Angry parents are set to take groundbreaking legal action against schools that turn away their disabled children.

Disabled services provider IHC has collected statements from families to back up a case to go before the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Director of advocacy Trish Grant said court action would be the next step, if the complaint and mediation didn't fix the problem.

Hamilton mum Maxine Jeffery tried to enrol her 6-year-old twins, Levi and Olivia, in two Hamilton primary schools before they were accepted by a third school. One said Levi, who is blind and autistic, would be better at another school. The next phoned up and said: "We've talked about it as a school and we've decided that if you bring your child to this school a lot of parents will remove their children."

Antonia Hannah, whose 7-year-old son Max has Down syndrome, gave evidence that she was deterred by three East Auckland primary schools - St Thomas's, Glen Taylor and Michael Park, a Steiner school.

"They are all very careful with words to protect themselves but they were dubious, pessimistic and made it clear it wasn't going to work. There was a generally unwelcome attitude and a pressure to agree to shortened school hours," she said.

This week, the schools all said they were open to enrolments from disabled children.

St Thomas's principal Janice Adamson said her school enrolled every child which resided in the school zone "regardless of ethnicity, religion, need or syndromes".

The school had another student with Down syndrome and worked alongside Sunnydene Special School, Adamson said, adding that she "loved" having children with special needs in her school.

Michael Park principal Dee Whitby told Hannah in an email that another Down syndrome child had suffered difficulties "and it was not an easy decision to reach that he would be happier" in another school. But this week, she said all children were enrolled according to the same policy as long as parents supported the Steiner ethos.

Lin Avery, principal of Glen Taylor, did not believe her staff would have actively discouraged the family. "I do know that at that time we had a huge spurt in roll growth and [the acting principal] was under a lot of pressure dealing with unexpected numbers of children coming in, so I don't know if that would have impacted on her response to that request."

Colleen Brown of the Family and Parent Resource Centre - who faced the same problems enrolling her Down syndrome son when he was a child - said she had advocated for countless families trying to enrol their children.

"Nine times out of 10 parents will not come out and say categorically they had been discriminated against," she said. "It's a huge step for parents to take."

Schools gave varying responses - from a flat "no", to asking the parents for money to make up the funding shortfall, to accepting the student for part of a day or week then sending them home.

Unfair treatment
* Since beginning its investigations, the Herald on Sunday has been inundated with parents who say their children were effectively turned away from schools or treated unreasonably in class.

* Derek Reid tried to enrol his 5-year-old daughter Amelia, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, in two in-zone North Shore schools. One met with the family and cited reasons why it could not help them. Amelia now goes to Torbay Primary.

* Deborah McDougall's son has an intellectual disability. She said he suffered discrimination at three schools and was now being home-schooled.

* Carmen Donaldson's son Michael, 13, has autism and epilepsy and was told he couldn't go to school camp. The family organised a parent to go with him and got a previous principal to vouch for him. The Epilepsy Foundation offered staff training, the Human Rights Commission contacted the school and his older brother delivered a petition signed by 300 people. He was still not allowed to go to camp.

* Luminita Sprague's son, who has autism, had been attending a mainstream school for four years. When the family moved house they tried to enrol him at a Papakura school which seemed happy to take him "until the 'A' word popped up". "I was handed a letter which was practically trying to intimidate me into cancelling my son's enrolment at their school."

- Herald on Sunday

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