Family to leave country as school turns away son

THE parents of a boy with Down Syndrome say they will have to leave the country after their daughter’s school refused to enrol their son, saying it can not cater for his needs.

Christian Medina Finsen will be six in July and loves playing with other children when his mother Monica collects his sister Emily, aged seven, from first class at Lucan Educate Together National School in Dublin.

But because the school does not believe his educational needs can be met, it has said it will not accept him into junior infants next September.

Monica and her husband Mikkel, an IT director who moved here from Denmark 14 years ago, sent a psychologist’s report to the school in April. It told them Christian would need a full-time special needs assistant (SNA), resource teaching hours and other therapies, which he already receives through the HSE.

But the school says an officer of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has said full-time SNA resources will not be available to any child in the next school year.

SNAs cater for the care needs of children with disabilities, rather than having an educational role, but the Government has put a cap on the number of SNAs at the 10,575 who were in schools last December.

In the letter refusing to enrol Christian, the school’s board said the school strives to have all children educated in an inclusive environment, and that they find it difficult to see this can be achieved for Christian in a mainstream setting, where his educational needs can not be met.

However, Monica believes the school has taken the wrong approach.

“They have to offer him a place before the school can apply for an SNA,” she said.

“They can’t deny him placement on the basis they think he’s not going to get an SNA.”

The family is entitled to appeal the decision to a committee appointed by the top official in the Department of Education, but have decided not to do so. Instead, they are taking Emily out of the school when classes end this month and have taken daughter Jasmine, aged one, off the school’s waiting list.

“We are happy with Emily’s teachers so far, they have been wonderful,” said Monica. “But we are really worried about having her in a school that discriminates against a little child like this.

“It looks like we’re going to have to leave the country because the situation is desperate, with all the cuts everywhere. We simply don’t see that Christian has a positive future here. It’s awful, we really don’t want to leave but we don’t see any choice but to leave the country.”

Mikkel has already asked his employers for a transfer to the United States, where Monica said they understand much different laws require schools to offer services to children with disabilities.

Monica and Mikkel say they know the imposition of limits on the numbers of SNAs and possible cuts to resource teaching hours to help children with learning difficulties have put schools in a tough position. But, they say, they want Christian to be given the best opportunity to develop socially and academically.

“Christian isn’t going to be able to do higher level Leaving Cert maths but I would hope he can go to school and sit with other children in class,” said Mikkel. “I want him to learn basic maths, to read and write, and integrate.”

A Department of Education spokesperson said it does not comment on individual cases.

On Monday, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn published a consultation document setting out possible changes to more strictly govern enrolment policies, including the admission of children with special needs.

Teacher unions and management bodies warned, however, that schools need to be properly resourced to help them continue catering for students who may need extra supports, particularly those with disabilities or learning difficulties.

Down Syndrome Ireland chief executive Pat Clarke said he is aware of many families whose children have had their SNA entitlements cut or had a reduction in resource teaching hours.

“I wouldn’t like to think there would be a temptation for schools to take the easy option by declining to enrol people with disabilities because of the pressures they are under with rising pupil numbers and less resources,” he said.

School’s response

WHILE Lucan Educate Together National School did not comment to the Irish Examiner yesterday, its position is outlined in its letter to Christian’s parents sent on May 19. These are extracts from the letter in which his enrolment application was refused.

“We have noted and accepted [Christian’s psychologist’s] assessment as carried out. However, despite requests for clarification, the conclusion which recommends mainstream education does not, in our opinion, match the assessment contained in the report.

“While we appreciate that the psychologist has given significant weight to your wish as parents, to have Christian educated in a mainstream class, we do not consider that similar weight has been given to determining the most appropriate educational placement for Christian.

“As our main concerns are Christian’s educational needs and his ability to access the primary curriculum in a busy junior infants classroom, given his moderate learning disability and his other complex needs, we do not see how this is possible at present.

“We have a duty of care to all of the children and staff in our school and must also consider the impact on the other children enrolled in this class. While the [Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs] Act does encourage the education of children with special needs in an inclusive environment, it does accept that the nature and degree of such needs may by inconsistent with the effective provision of education for the other children in the classroom, with home a child with special education needs is to be educated.”

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