Jacqueline Patron’s daughter Elyse was a flight risk.
On the autism spectrum, she would bolt from her parents in stores and public places.
When Elyse started kindergarten at a Regina Public school in fall 2016, Patron had concerns, which she felt were misunderstood by school administrators.
“They were like, ‘Oh it’s OK, we have a fence; we have people out there.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” said Patron.
“‘When (Elyse) hits a certain problem, instead of full meltdowns on the ground, she now will just take off. She’ll just walk away, and she won’t listen to you. And you can’t really calm her down. You’ve got to just walk with her.’
Jacqueline Patron, right, and her daughter Elyse Patron, pose for a portrait in their home in Regina on March 23, 2018. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post
“My concern was because it would be the first time she would be completely alone without us there, and I wasn’t too sure if everyone understood what accommodation means for a child with special needs.”
So, Patron did her own behavioural analysis.
For a month, she watched her daughter at recess from a distance, to collect data to help her child in a way she wasn’t sure the school would.
During that month, Patron saw Elyse fixate on the ball as Grade 2 boys played soccer. Six times, Patron saw Elyse get in the way of the game. Once, a boy got fed up and “whacked her one.”
Elyse fixated on the ball the same way Patron suspects that a Saskatoon boy fixated on a pond near his school.
Stuffed animals and balloons sit at the edge of a retention pond near Dundonald School in Saskatoon on Sept. 12, 2017. The memorial was in tribute to five-year-old Ahmedsadiq Hussein Elmmi, who drowned in the retention pond on Sept. 11, 2017. Morgan Modjeski / Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Five-year-old Ahmedsadiq Hussein Elmmi died accidentally on Sept. 11, 2017, during recess at Saskatoon’s Dundonald School.
The boy, who had autism, ran away from the educational assistant who was supervising him. He drowned in a storm pond located near the schoolyard.
The provincial coroner’s office issued a report last week in relation to the death, with five recommendations for Saskatoon’s two school divisions. Corey O’Soup, the Advocate for Children and Youth, is also expected to table a report about the death on Tuesday.
The coroner’s recommendations included: that the school divisions review policies about student supervision during recess; that they develop training strategies for staff members to be informed of students’ needs; that water safety education be provided for all students; that new schools be built away from bodies of water; and that barriers be placed near ponds in proximity to existing schools or playgrounds.
As a result of the report, Regina’s two school divisions say they are taking the opportunity to review their safety procedures.
Jacqueline Patron, right, says schools still need a wakeup call about how to accommodate children with special needs. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post
Patron believes everyone has missed the point.
“It’s more than just putting up a fence. It’s more than just changing the way they design schools. It’s more than that. The schools are just still not getting that full integration means so much more than what they’re doing,” she said.
“I’m not against the schools, however they need a wakeup call, and I can’t fathom how that wasn’t a wakeup call to them.”
That “full education,” in part, means viewing recess as more than just playtime — for typical children, it’s a period of learning how to socialize and share. But children on the spectrum learn differently.
Because of integrated classrooms, children with special needs might not receive the support they need, said Patron: There might be an educational assistant in class, but there might not be; meanwhile, one teacher might oversee 28 students and can’t keep close watch of them all.
“Before, the five kids that fit the autism/ADD/ADHD kind of platform would be in another classroom for maybe one or two classes and then come back to their classrooms. They’ve taken all that away,” said Patron.
Elyse’s teacher was understanding, said Patron. Through off-hours playground visits, conversations and routine, they were able to steer the girl toward other areas of the schoolyard.
A lot of this was due to Patron’s time and effort — which some parents don’t have.
“The schools are running out of resources to do that,” said Patron.
That was the reason given another Regina mom, Brittany McDonald, as her daughter Runa was denied a spot in pre-kindergarten.
McDonald was told that schools lacked the resources to guarantee autistic children’s safety, she relayed to reporters at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building last week.
After Elmmi died, “Safety was the word on everyone’s lips,” McDonald said.
“My daughter is autistic, she’s vulnerable.”
Following the coroner’s report’s release, Regina Public School Division spokesperson Terry Lazarou said “everything will be looked at.”
“It’s a sad reason but a great opportunity to look at what we do and see if we can do it better, specifically for younger kids and kids with special needs. Supervision is an important thing,” said Lazarou.
“At this time, we’re confident in our outdoor supervision, and include all the safety lessons outlined in the curriculum,” Regina Catholic School Division spokesperson Twylla West said via email.
Safety procedures are reviewed at the school level about three times a year, said West.
After Elmmi’s death in September, the division administration discussed “at length” the safety rules at its schools located near water.
“The main rule for schools near a creek or other small body of water is that there are specific boundaries shared with the student body,” said West.
“For example, no one is allowed past a tree line, or behind the bushes before the creek, if you can see any water it means you’re too close.”
If a student breaks the rules, staff address the situation “with great seriousness and care,” she added.
“We will be looking at the two or three schools that we have that are close to bodies of water and looking at how we address issues of safety for our students,” Lazarou said.