Derry College apologises after refusing to take autistic child

St Brigid's College in Derry.

St Brigid's College in Derry.

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St Brigid’s College in Derry refused to take in an autistic boy despite the Education Authority recommending he be placed there.

The school - which has the only specialist secondary-level autism unit in the region- has now apologised to the family of the child after a settlement was reached in a case taken by the boys’ parents and backed by the Equality Commission.

The Derry school has also accepted that they fell below the standards required in respect of compliance with disability discrimination law.

Staff at the Carnhill school will now undergo training to ensure the school’s policy and procedures conform to the law in future.

The Equality Commission has said that the case settled with St. Brigid’s School involved an 11-year-old boy who has an autistic spectrum disorder, which has an adverse effect on his ability to learn, concentrate or understand.

He also has difficulty understanding social situations and emotions and has a statement of Special Educational Needs.

The boy had been a pupil at a primary school linked to St. Brigid’s but, though the Education Authority recommended in his Statement that he be placed there, this was refused by the College which stated that it “was not in a position to provide post-primary education” for him.

This position was maintained by the School, the Equality Commission said, even after the Education Authority wrote to and met with them suggesting how the child’s needs could be accommodated and detailing the availability of a classroom assistant and other support through the Education Authority’s Behaviour Support Team.

The boy was eventually located at another school.

The case was one of three pursued against schools in Northern Ireland by families and supported by the Equality Commission.

Settlements of claims brought in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal against Wallace High School, Lisburn, Lislagan Primary School, Ballymoney, as well as St. Brigid’s College, have now all been agreed.

The Equality Commission said that the proceedings in each case involved a refusal by the school to accept a disabled child as a pupil, although the Education Authority, or one of its predecessor Boards, had identified the schools as suitable for the children.

In each case the school concerned has apologised to the child and their parents, the Commission said.

Speaking after the settlement, Dr. Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission said:

“The Equality Commission supports cases such as these to highlight that access to education is of vital importance for children with disabilities.

“We have identified a lack of appropriate support during the transition between primary and secondary levels of education as one of the barriers confronting disabled children. It is fundamentally linked to better life chances and better employment chances for every young person with a disability.”

“There is a lesson from these cases for every school.” Dr. Wardlow said. “When a disabled child applies for a place, they should proactively give proper consideration to how they can adapt to meet the needs of that pupil.

“These are children who have enough barriers facing them in life. They don’t need the additional barriers than can be thrown up when schools decide that their needs cannot be accommodated.”

In each of the cases the families concerned, when faced with the opposition of the schools involved, chose to send their child to a different school. The children were accommodated at these other schools and their needs are being met.

In the settlements, the schools agreed to work with the Equality Commission and to train their staff to make sure their procedures and policies conform to the law.

The Commission has already reviewed their Special Educational Needs and Inclusion Policies with the other two schools and both have made amendments to these in accordance with our recommendations.

The Commission has also provided the schools with information regarding training available for staff and board members.

It is in contact with St. Brigid’s College regarding the follow-up on that settlement.

“These changes, in practices and in the approach schools take to these issues, are important outcomes,” Dr. Wardlow said. “The children who are at the heart of each case have moved on with their education and we wish them well as they progress through life.

“By challenging the decisions which were taken they and their families hope to ensure that other children, in similar circumstances, can avoid the additional, and unnecessary, difficulties which were placed before them.”

St brigid’s College said they had no comment to make.

An Education Authority spokesperson meanwhile said: “The Education Authority has a statutory duty to ensure the appropriate placement of children in line with their specific needs and disabilities as set out in their statement of special educational needs.

“Every effort is made to work with parents and schools to secure preferred placements for these children.

“We will continue to work with schools to promote the inclusion of children with special educational needs and disabilities and to reinforce with schools and boards of governors, their duty to meet pupils’ needs.”