An autistic 5-year-old boy has been refused enrolment at his local school after he allegedly ran from the grounds and on to the road twice in three hours during his first day.
The parents of Brody McDonald say they now face a “financially devastating” time after the boy’s enrolment was delayed by Woodville School in Manawatū — which he attended for just three hours — and despite four months of pre-planning with the Ministry of Education to safely transition him into primary school.
The safety framework included funding for a full-time teacher’s aide to cater to Brody’s specific needs and two weeks of transition visits by the McDonalds before Brody attended on his own.
The ministry told the Herald the reason for the delay from the boy’s brief first day on October 25 to February next year was that the school needs to complete the construction of a fence around its perimeter.
“We approached the school initially [in June] just because we knew the process was going to be a little bit different getting him into school than a child without autism,” said Brody’s mother, Haylee McDonald.
“So we’ve been back and forth communicating for four months. We did five or six transition visits. We had offered to do as many as possible ... but they had still only asked us to have him there for half days. So they were aware, they couldn’t have been more aware of what his needs were.”
Woodville School principal Wes Va’ai-Wells said he could not comment on individual children or families due to privacy obligations but acknowledged “we are working through a complex issue at present” with the family.
“What we can say is that the board and the senior teaching team see safety as their number one priority. We must be able to provide a safe environment for the tamariki we are responsible for.
“Where we have a safety issue, the responsible thing to do is make sure that we manage that risk appropriately, for the benefit of all those involved. We think this is in line with the expectations of Worksafe NZ, health and safety legislation, and the Ministry of Education.”
Southern leader for the Ministry of Education, Nancy Bell, confirmed to the Herald they are funding an already under-construction fence for Woodville School and are also providing temporary fencing in the interim.
“The board has indicated to us they will be enrolling this child. They asked to delay the start date until a perimeter fence is erected, so there is a safe physical environment that meets the necessary health and safety requirements,” Bell said.
“We have a plan in place to support this child’s transition to school. The plans will be regularly reviewed by the team supporting the young student to make sure his needs are being met.”
According to Haylee McDonald, the ministry had informed them of the temporary fence as a solution, yet they have heard nothing from the school on Brody being able to return.
Haylee and her husband, Leon, said they are now in a precarious financial situation until February.
“We have three kids and it’s getting to the point now where if we don’t get this sorted my wife will have to leave her full-time job to care for our son until we can get him into school. This will be financially devastating for us,” Leon said.
Haylee had planned to come off maternity leave after having her third son just as Brody was to begin school.
She was returning to a role in property management while Leon works as a dairy farmer.
The nature of how they were informed Brody could not attend school also rankled, the couple said.
“The next day we went to drop him off, we were approached even before we dropped him off, it was about 8.45am and they asked us to have a meeting that day. That’s when the principal and the deputy principal, who’s also their special needs coordinator, told us that they were cancelling his enrolment,” Haylee claimed.
“When we questioned ‘you can’t expel him, he hasn’t done anything wrong’ they said ‘we never actually enrolled him’.”
Haylee said they have arranged some short-term child care, but are looking at being $425 a week worse off, plus petrol to and from their farm outside Woodville.
The small town’s childcare centres had a long waiting list, Haylee said.
“Our only option was to pay someone privately, which becomes about double the cost of a full week of childcare.”
The McDonalds’ older child Jackson, 7, was also moved to Woodville School with Brody and is still attending class.
Haylee said they are not opposed to Brody returning to Woodville School permanently.
“Initially, after the way he was spoken about, we were quite firmly ‘no’, and then I guess once the emotion settled down we said well it is a good school, our other son was loving it, we don’t want to have to move him again,” Haylee said.
Va’ai-Wells told the Herald they were “working through these issues as quickly as we reasonably can”.
“We recognise that’s not everyone’s preferred option but, in the interests of safety, we believe this is the right decision for the school to make in the circumstances,” he said.
Haylee said they remain open to a compromised solution. “Honestly, our ultimate goal is for it to work out and if [this] brings nothing but recognising that the system as a whole is not great for kids like Brody that’ll be great for us if that’s all we get out of it.”