Recent cases highlight the requirement for an Education ombudsman

The starting point should be the person with adisability seeking help, writes Michael Clifford

Recent cases highlight the requirement for an Education ombudsman

THE recent case of 13-year-old schoolboy Paddy Flynn shows the value of public shaming. The boy from a Traveller background was denied a place in his local second-level school until pressure from the story, broadcast by RTÉ, became too much for the school authorities.

The station’s Emma O’Kelly broke the story and then followed up with detail which showed the line being spun by De La Salle secondary school in Dublin’s Ballyfermot didn’t really stack up. The school said that the child’s application was too late. No provision was given to the fact that Paddy’s parents can’t read or write and therefore didn’t respond to the initial application form.

O’Kelly kept at the story, following up her initial broadcast with news that the school had enrolled 77 pupils in 2014; 67 last year; and only 38 this year. While the number of classes were being reduced that didn’t suggest that overcrowding was an issue. Last Tuesday members of the school’s management board looked into their hearts and found room for a boy from a minority background to continue his education. Would anything have happened without the intervention of O’Kelly’s journalism?

The story illustrates how as a last resort citizens feel the only way to have an injustice addressed is to drag it out into the full public glare. The outcome, however, is not always guaranteed.

Another case involving a 13-year-old whose parents despairingly went to the media over a severe injustice didn’t finish so well. As reported in this newspaper on August 24, teenager Luke Kelly-Melia was awarded €5,500 for discrimination by the Workplace Relations Commission. The detail behind that story is quite shocking.

Luke has cerebral palsy. When he was in sixth class at Knocktemple National School in Virginia, Co Cavan, he was denied a request to bring an assistance dog into the school. The dog, Aidan, was described as his zimmerframe, providing Luke with stability, preventing falls that could have been serious.

The WRC ruling stated that after Luke’s parents had despairingly gone to the media, “the board of management allowed the red mist to affect their judgement and lost sight that there was a 13-year-old boy with special needs at the heart of this case”. The school, through its various agents, acted in a “callous” manner towards the boy, it found.

Early in the school year of 2011-2012, Luke’s parents had requested he be allowed bring the dog. They provided medical opinion that it would improve his situation. The school response was that the dog could not be brought into the classroom. Luke’s parents weren’t willing to, as they saw it, continue to put him at risk. They began homeschooling him in December 2011.

In January, the story appeared in the media. There was coverage in the national daily press, along with TV3, Northern Sound radio, and the Meath Chronicle. The school’s board regarded the headlines as sensational, resulting in adverse publicity for the school.

Quite obviously, the ventilating of the story in the public domain did not give pause for reflection. Instead of viewing their predicament in a new light, the people involved decided to circle the wagons. What was now at issue was the parents of a boy with special needs having the temerity to run to the media, rather than whether or not that boy was accorded fair and proper treatment by a body charged with educating children.

Instead of retreating or reflecting, the school opened up a new front in its dispute with Luke and his family. A questionnaire was circulated to parents and staff as to their views on whether the presence of an assistance dog in the school would cause difficulties.

The questionnaire was loaded with the following queries. “If you have concerns in relation to the use of assistance dogs on school grounds which of the following do your concerns relate to?” A choice of four boxes to tick were provided. The same applied to the second question: “How would you articulate your concerns?”

As the WRC noted: “There was no box to tick if parents or staff did not have an issue with an assistance dog in the school.” As with all these matters, the quality and direction of the questions can be directed to load the answers. Quite obviously, the board didn’t want to know about parents who had no concerns. In any event, disseminating a questionnaire about the matter was a curious way to attempt to facilitate a child with a disability.

“Sending a questionnaire to other parents was putting the cart before the horse,” according to the WRC. “When a request for reasonable accommodation is made, the starting point should be the person with a disability seeking it. Careful attention should be paid to what has been recommended by his doctors. No attempt was made by the school to contact his physiotherapist, GP or consulting physicians.”

Worse was to come. At the end of school year, his friend called and showed him a yearbook created for the class as they were leaving primary school education. Luke was reportedly highly upset at his exclusion. Neither was he invited on the school tour.

The WRC found this attitude towards the boy to be “callous”.

“He was seven and a half years in the school and should, at least, have been invited back on the last day,” it ruled.

Things are different today for Luke. The principal in his secondary school investigated how an assistance dog operated in another school and returned “excited” by what he saw. Luke’s request to be accompanied by Aidan was immediately granted.

“He has shown a remarkable improvement with his mobility since the introduction of his disability dog,” the WRC found. “His gait has improved significantly.”

The episode demonstrates how those in power, at whatever level of society, can so easily lose the run of themselves. Educators and volunteers who assist in running schools are primarily concerned with doing their best for children.

In the case of Luke Kelly-Melia, priorities got smothered somewhere along the way. A case concerned with how to improve the quality of life of a boy with special challenges got confused with an instinct of righteous indignation that the matter was not kept behind closed doors, within strict pararmeters of control.

What it also highlights is the requirement for an Education ombudsman, who could intervene in situations such as the one above and find a speedy resolution. Luke Kelly-Melia’s case took three years to process and come to a determination.

Fine Gael TD Jim Daly, a former school principal, has long been beating the drum for an Education Ombudsman and last year he introduced a private members’ bill to establish such an office. The bill is currently going through the Oireachtas unopposed by Government or opposition. Its enactment can’t come soon enough.

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