Assistant school principal reconsiders suspension policies and home schooling after her son is suspended

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This assistant school principal claims her son’s special needs were not factored into his suspension ruling. As the family grapples with his recent autism diagnosis and the school’s handling of the situation.

Video above: The Feed asks whether school suspension helps students or hurts them.

“[Suspension] is most effective when it highlights the parents’ responsibility for taking an active role, in partnership with the school, to modify the inappropriate behaviour of their child.” - NSW Department of Education.

I should know. I’m an assistant principal and I’ve implemented this policy in my job numerous times.

My 10-year-old son attends a different school, and last year he was suspended six times in two terms. He has the academic brain of a 15 year old, but a frustration level of a two year old.

After being accepted into the Opportunity Class for high-achieving Year 5 students, my smart little boy started bashing his head and telling me he wanted to kill himself.

I immediately made an appointment for him to see a psychologist. After a few visits and another suspension, appointments with a paediatrician and child psychiatrist, he was given a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, anxiety and depression. He started a social skills program with a speech pathologist and now has regular occupational therapy to help with sensory processing disorder and emotional regulation. He has been medicated and recently underwent a sleep study to look for other potential causes for his behaviour.

I remember phoning my son’s new school before accepting his position to discuss his diagnoses and the suspensions he had received. I explained how very small issues had escalated into my son being restrained and often involved him ending up on the ground with the school principal on top of him.

Since starting in his Opportunity Class, my son has received three more suspensions and has ended up being pinned to the ground by his new principal. This year, he has spent as much time at home as he has in class.

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Diagnosing Autism. Watch the full episode on SBS On Demand.
Diagnosing Autism. Watch the full episode on SBS On Demand.

“Suspension is not intended as a punishment. Suspension allows time for school staff to plan and/or review learning and behaviour supports to assist a student to engage positively with school and learning.” - NSW Department of Education.

It’s traumatising to hear that your child has been restrained. To see the marks on his body and the pain from being held down; not to mention the emotional toll it takes on him. He regularly repeats, “I am an idiot, I am stupid.” It takes a toll on the whole family. His younger brother is often reminded that his brother is not allowed at school by his classmates. He has even tried getting in trouble himself, to be allowed to stay home. I have not been able to work. Our extended family struggles to cope seeing the anguish we all feel.

His wellbeing is more important to me than any academic achievements. Suspension may not be intended as a punishment, but it is very difficult to see it as anything else. Especially when the length of suspension goes way beyond the time required to put supports in place. My son feels like he is being punished.

The resolution meeting after the suspension, where parents, the student and specialist staff work together to form a plan of support is where the suspension strategy has merit. It gives everyone the opportunity to examine how the child can be supported to re-join the school community. However, the plan is only useful if it is implemented.

Recently, I read a heart-warming article about a school where students were learning sign language because a deaf student had just enrolled. What an incredible learning opportunity to teach kids about inclusion.

I couldn’t help but to compare this approach to how my son’s school has dealt with his special needs.

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How do you turn a school around?
How do you turn a school around?

At the most recent resolution meeting I pleaded with school staff to look at my son as though he were in a wheelchair. The adjustments that he needs to scaffold his behaviour when he is frustrated or upset are akin to a physically disabled child who needs a ramp or access to a ground floor classroom. He needs their help, not to be excluded from attending school.

I have had to change my mindset and the way I approached my son’s suspension. I now treat his time off as a gift. We can spend time learning and engaging positively in the world. I know he will be understood, given time to process his feelings and get through the day without feeling like a failure.

I can see why so many parents value home-schooling. It is an option that I am still considering. My son has not been able to engage positively with school or learning because he has been home alone with me.

Suspension can work. It’s is a strategy that can work towards positive change; giving time for reflection and action for staff, parents and students. For those who have diagnosed special needs, consideration of the child’s needs, the triggers for their behaviour and how to de-escalate situations may be more appropriate than implementing a typical behaviour policy. But there is absolutely no benefit in suspension when there is no change to a student’s behaviour plan. In my experience, it is almost a guarantee that another suspension will be issued within the next week or two.

My son is now on a partial enrolment, starting with two-hour days and gradually increasing his time at school. He has a new teacher who is implementing his plan and I am hopeful that her dedication continues and his experience of school remains positive.