Alberta parents lose appeal over school putting son in seclusion room

EDMONTON — Parents who say they found their autistic son stripped naked and covered in his own feces after he was locked in a seclusion room at an Edmonton-area school have lost an appeal in their lawsuit.

Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel sued the school board as well as Alberta’s Education Department in 2018.

They alleged that Clover Bar Junior High School in Sherwood Park violated their 12-year-old son Aidan’s charter rights and that the department should be held liable.

Elk Island Public Schools denied the allegations.

A lower-court judge dismissed the claim against the ministry and the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld that decision on Tuesday.

The three Appeal Court judges ruled unanimously that the ministry did not breach the charter and that nothing in what was the School Act at the time stated the ministry had to ensure practices were properly implemented.

“I’m just very disappointed. Just complete and utter disappointment,” a visibly upset Oakes said.

The ruling suggests that “the government of Alberta, as deemed by the court … isn’t responsible for keeping our children safe at school,” she said.

Advocates with Inclusion Alberta had called for a review of seclusion rooms in light of Aidan’s case.

“We’re talking about the equivalent of solitary confinement for children … at the place where we expect them to be educated,” said Bruce Uditsky, the advocacy group’s CEO. “I think that rises above day-to-day operations of schools.”

“How is it that the Alberta government doesn’t have responsibility in any way … in terms of monitoring and assuring appropriate practice?”

A survey of 400 families done in 2018 by Inclusion Alberta showed that 80 per cent of parents said the rooms left their children traumatized or in emotional distress. The survey indicated that more than half of children put in isolation were on the autism spectrum.

Last March, the then-NDP government banned the practice over concerns the rooms meant to give disruptive students a place to settle down were traumatizing students with developmental disabilities.

It was to take effect at the beginning of the school year last fall, but the new United Conservative government repealed the ban.

In October, the UCP brought in a new set of standards that allow rooms and physical restraints to be used in schools in emergency or crisis situations as a last resort.

“It is what it is, and things have changed now since 2015 when this happened to Aidan, and they’ve changed for the better,” said Oakes.

The parents have not given up on their lawsuit. They are still seeking damages from Elk Island Public Schools as the remaining defendant.

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