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Newfoundland and Labrador students with disabilities need guarantee: NDP

['Lorraine Michael']
NDP MHA Lorraine Michael. - Telegram file photo

Schools Act change otherwise a risk despite minister’s assurances, Michael says

NDP MHA Lorraine Michael wants Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Al Hawkins to commit to having something in writing, in school board policy, to protect children with disabilities from being kept out of school in a misuse of new school district powers.

This week, the provincial government debated and passed an amendment to the Schools Act, providing a non-punitive tool for removing students from the school environment in cases when their presence is potentially of detriment or risk to students and/or staff.

The amendment to the act is already through third reading, but Michael raised a red flag Wednesday, suggesting a specific protection be written into the related policies, now being developed under each school district before September.

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“Such powers in some other jurisdictions with similar legislation have led to children with disabilities being kept out of schools,” she said in the House, later clarifying for The Telegram she had reviewed reports out of Ontario, where the power to remove children from schools is similarly worded, but allows the decisions to be made by principals there, versus the district director and CEO here.

Michael referred to an analysis of Ontario’s measures by a staff lawyer with ARCH Disability Law Centre, a community legal aid clinic working to protect and advance the rights of persons with disabilities. That analysis states the power in Ontario has been used at times to exclude students, citing a third-party survey. It notes there is legal protection offered to students under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

Michael said her desire is to pre-emptively address any issues in this province.

On introducing the changes to the Schools Act, Hawkins said it would not be used to the detriment of students with disabilities.

In response to Michael’s questions in the House, he reiterated the commitment.

“I think the answer I have today is really no different or not much different than it was yesterday,” he said. “I think we were very clear in the questions that were provided to me or asked during the committee (debate), that I tried to be very, very clear that these are circumstances, people with exceptionalities are not included in that, Mr. Speaker.”

But Michael suggested there’s no harm in then seeing that commitment in writing, even if it seems redundant.

“You can’t assume that (because) you’re saying it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

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