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Autism advocates call for more school supports after 7-year-old with autism found at 'busy intersection'

The education minister said what happened was 'unacceptable and should have never occurred'

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park. 

The Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) was at Queen's Park Thursday asking the province to increase special education funding and launch an investigation after a seven-year-old boy with autism wandered from his school and was found at a "busy intersection" earlier this month.  

The incident has prompted the education minister to ask the Durham District School Board to create a plan to prevent such situations from happening again. 

"It was the middle of a storm, so Zak is a child who if he gets a drip of water on his shirt, he needs to change his clothes, so I could only imagine how uncomfortable and frightened and scared he must have been that day," said the boy's mother Neelam Rasheid. "He's vulnerable, I think about the things that could have happened to him while he was in the woods."

Rasheid, who spoke at Queen's Park on Thursday morning, said she and her husband received an email from her son's school on Jan. 9 saying that he had run away — or eloped, as is referred to when someone leaves a safe environment without supervision — from the school and was found by a neighbour. Rasheid said she was told her son was missing for three or four minutes, but she believes it was much longer than that. 

She said she went and spoke to the neighbour, who had spotted Zak walking through the woods in just a t-shirt. The neighbour, who got help from another person in the area, eventually found Zak at a "busy four-lane road" at the end of the woods, Rasheid said.

"The two women stopped traffic and brought Zak back to safety. Zak was then taken back to their house. The woman indicated that she found Zak shivering as he was drenched from head to toe and they wrapped him in blankets and they called the school to advise that they had found him," she continued. "Had I not spoken to that neighbour, I would have never known what my son had endured that day."

Rasheid said she thinks the school "failed to be transparent with us on the details of what really happened with my son" and that she subsequently had a meeting with the principal and superintendent to which she brought timestamped video footage of Zak's whereabouts provided to her by the neighbour. 

She said Zak, who is in a regular Grade 2 classroom, has an educational assistant (EA) assigned to him, but that a request for another EA in the classroom was only granted after this incident occurred and until an assessment of any triggers causing him to run can be done this month. 

"I know that's a big ask, but there's something not right, this is the sixth time an elopement has occurred in four months and it keeps getting more and more dangerous each time," she said. 

Rasheid said she is constantly worried about Zak's safety. 

"Picture having to drop your child off to school and you're on eggshells all day long, just waiting for that phone call," she said. 

Kate Dudley-Logue, OAC vice-president, said the organization would like to see the government take action. 

"We are calling on Education Minister Stephen Lecce to launch an immediate investigation into the incident, and we further demand that the Ford government provide adequate special education funding to school boards in the upcoming spring budget," she said. 

Asked about the incident and the call for an investigation, Minister Lecce said in a statement to The Trillium that “what happened to Zak Rasheid is unacceptable and should have never occurred. I have asked the board to provide a full account of the incident, and to develop a plan to ensure this never happens to any student again."

For its part, the board said it is working to prevent such situations from happening again. 

"The student has direct support personnel, however the student temporarily moved away from their support. Due to the urgency of the situation, our immediate focus was on ensuring the student’s safety," the DDSB said in a statement. "We appreciate the support of the community in helping to locate the student and are grateful the student is safe. We regret the situation and are committed to reviewing and reinforcing our safety protocol to prevent future occurrences." 

Dudley-Logue called the Rasheid family's experience a "horrific story," and one that is becoming more common. 

"While we used to talk about whether kids with special education needs were receiving meaningful access to curriculum, today, we're more concerned with whether or not our kids are receiving enough support to just be at school safely at all," she said. 

Dudley-Logue added that many children with autism are waiting for therapy through the Ontario Autism Program that could help with communication and self-regulation skills. 

"Without the opportunity to develop these skills, these children are in schools and they're needing much more support than is being allotted to them," she said. 

Rasheid said Zak is on the wait list for therapy through the province's autism program. 

The government has said it's hired 3,500 educational assistants since 2017-18 and that the Special Education Grant for the current school year is projected to be around $3.41 billion, an increase of nearly $125 million. 

Even so, NDP education critic Chandra Pasma said funding isn't enough and that because of this, the school staff available to support children with disabilities or special needs is limited.

"As a result, we are seeing every single day in this province that kids are going without the supports they need and deserve not just to learn, but to stay safe, and some children are being excluded from our school system entirely, because schools cannot afford the resources to keep them safe," Pasma said. 

Tony Stravato, another vice-president with the OAC, said this is the case with his twin 10-year-old boys. 

He said his sons have high needs and that they've been working with their local school board to see if their safety needs can be met. 

"It's not happening, they don't have the resources," he said, adding that he could relate to Zak's story. 

"Zak's story's got to hit Ontario. Our population, our governments have to listen to these stories, because what's it gonna take? Does it have to be a kid that dies?" Stravato said. 

"We need to put our resources into these kids because these kids are our future. And you know, the last thing parents need is to live on eggshells every day, and that's what we do," he said. "We're always up here fighting. We shouldn't have to be here ... I want to send my kids to school, but unfortunately, I'm not going to put them in a position where they could die."

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Sneh Duggal

About the Author: Sneh Duggal

Providing in-depth coverage of Ontario politics since 2018. Recent reporting includes the impact of the pandemic on schools, health care and vulnerable populations while at Queen’s Park Briefing.
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