Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

'My autistic child is not a monster': Father's anger as ministry orders Nelson boy to go to special facility 300km away

The boy's father, Mike: "I'm sick of him being labelled as naughty."
The boy's father, Mike: "I'm sick of him being labelled as naughty."

Parents of a 9-year-old boy have been threatened with prosecution unless they send him to a special boarding school 300km from their home.

The child, who has a genetic disorder and is autistic, has been excluded from three schools in Nelson due to continual disobedience and violent behaviour, despite what the Government labelled an "exhaustive" effort to keep him enrolled.

The Ministry of Education says it now cannot find a local school that will take the child and he must go to Halswell Residential College in Christchurch instead, in compliance with the Education Act.

However, his parents are desperate to keep him at home, and want to apply for an exemption to homeschool him temporarily. Ultimately, they say, he wants to return to a mainstream classroom and should be allowed to attend a local school with his friends.

"They've made me feel like my child is a monster," his mother, Mel, said.

"It felt like they were going to come and take him away. It was gut-wrenching. But I don't think he should be institutionalised, I want them to try and understand him, to meet his needs instead of him having to change to meet theirs."

The Herald has chosen not to use the family's last name or the child's name to protect his identity.

Documents show the boy has received extensive support since he was first enrolled at age 5 in St Joseph's School Nelson in 2012. His parents said they removed him because he was spending too much time in the principal's office.

The boy then passed through Auckland Point School, Stoke School, and Tahunanui School. He was excluded from all despite having significant support in the form of teacher aides, educational psychologists and behaviour programmes.

Principal of Tahunanui School, Barbara Bowen, said they worked hard to provide an inclusive education plan but were unable to overcome safety issues.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education contacted Nelson's Maitai Special School, but eventually decided its concerns about the welfare of other students were too great.

It recommended the boy be sent to Halswell instead, saying he would need up to nine months there with a more "intensive service".

Deputy education secretary Katrina Casey said if the family refused to comply, the ministry would be forced to consider prosecution for failure to enrol.

"This would be a step I am reluctant to take however and I hope that it need not come to that."

The boy's father, Mike, said after they received that letter he decided "enough was enough" and decided to apply for an exemption. Mel is now teaching their son at home, as well as working nights to help pay the bills.

"I'm sick of him being labelled as naughty," Mike said. "He's not, he's got a disability, he's got no coping skills, and if he's backed into a corner, he fights. He needs more than a teacher aide."

The parents believe he needs a specialised, trained teaching team to work with him at a local school and to teach him in a way that is more suited to his disability. Currently they are considering hiring a dyslexia specialist and paying for that themselves.

In response to questions, Ms Casey said yesterday the ministry had explored the options but wanted the family to consider Halswell as it had staff skilled at working on behaviour management. The boy struggled to regulate his impulses, Ms Casey said.

Ms Casey said the child's behaviour had created problems for others. However, "we wouldn't prosecute lightly. We are legally obliged to have kids at school. This is no different to any other child at school being enrolled."

The ministry would consider a homeschool application, although the parents would need support, she said.

Head of advocacy for IHC Trish Grant said the threat to prosecute only served to further demonise the child.

"Gone are the days when we sent these kids off to special places. We've closed down institutions and this boy has a right to be at home with his family and go to his local school," she said.

- NZ Herald

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