What does “gatekeeping” look like? A family’s experience of being pushed out of general education

14 November 2019

On 12 November 2019, Dr Peter Walker, an Inclusive Education lecturer and researcher, the National President of the Australia Association of Special Education (AASE) and a former school Principal, shared with the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability, his experience of supporting a member of his family to access education at a local high school in South Australia.

The following day, Dr Walker also shared his experience on Twitter.  It was a devastating story of the denial of a child’s right and entitlement to education, by those who had a duty to welcome and support him.

Dr Walker’s account has resonated with many families because it speaks of their experiences across Australia’s education systems.  What is equally confronting, is that someone with Dr Walker’s knowledge and expertise in education of children and young people with disability, was still unable to effectively (successfully) advocate for his relative’s rights in the face of rampant discrimination within a system that backed those who were determined to push him out.

Since the first hearing of the Disability Royal Commission in Townsville, Queensland, on 4-7 November 2019,  focusing on inclusive education, the issue of ‘parental choice’ in the context of considering segregated schooling options has been a topic of significant discussion.  What is critical to appreciate is that the parallel ‘special’ segregated system was never created to increase educational ‘choice’ – it was created and is maintained to keep people with disability separate – and the continued flow of students to segregated settings is not evidence of free and informed parental choice to segregate their children.  It is not – it is Hobson’s choice for many parents, the choice you make when you don’t really have another.

As this account by Dr Walker shows, the family did not exercise any true ‘choice’, and the ‘gatekeeping’ they encountered vividly shows how the continued existence of the parallel segregated system is used as a ‘release valve’ – to enable the general education system to avoid its obligation to include students with disability.

We would like to thank Dr Walker and his family for permission to republish his words.

By @petermarkwalker13 November 2019
Tweet 1
A thread: 🧵
Last night I shared a family story with the @DRC_AU [Disability Royal Commission] about a relative and her autistic son.
2018 was his first year of high school. A short transition had occurred. His NEP [Negotiated Education Plan] was not updated during this time even though it was a major transition (ie. perfect time).

Tweet 2

Before the end of Term One the school is suspending.😡 He’s disengaged in class, unsure about the work, doesn’t ask questions because he feels stupid. School response for this is to send him to the withdrawal room. School policy = 7 trips to withdrawal room and it’s a suspension.
Tweet 3
All of a sudden he’s clocking up suspensions. Remember: autistic teen, beginning to get his head around a major school change. His behaviours are predominantly stuff like work refusal.
I get asked to help advocate for my relative and her son.
Tweet 4 
The school is ALREADY putting the pressure on my relative to enrol her son elsewhere. 👉 They know the right alternative program, that they reckon is the “best place” for him. [Link: “Are flexible learning options giving schools a convenient way out of taking responsibility for ‘difficult’ students?”]
Tweet 5 
Following one suspension they make it a CONDITION of return that the family visits an alternative setting. This is not what preparation for suspension re-entry is about. It’s certainly not in the procedures. It’s also not, we reckon, “on the same basis”.
Tweet 6
We suspect the NEP hasn’t been updated for a while so we ask the school to do this – looking at ways it might highlight supports such as the structured teaching of social skills. Tier 2/3 stuff. Or “Reasonable adjustments”. System website says NEPs should be updated twice a year.
Tweet 7 
I point this out and am told the system has many policies, but the school doesn’t have time to follow them all. Unsatisfied with this response – we look at applying some political pressure to what’s happening. We’re concerned at the school’s reductive and punitive approach.
Tweet 8
Additionally, their strategies are about 3 decades old – NOTHING supported by research, nothing looking at a function of his behaviour, nothing preventative, nothing that attempts to TEACH. All “reason” for behaviour is viewed as child-based. Medical model stuff.
Tweet 9
We instruct the school to stop directing us to alternative provision. We point out that it’s “gatekeeping”.  [Link: “Media Release AMA and CYDA – National Survey: Discrimination against students with disability in schools is widespread”]. They deny this. They also ignore our written instruction, intent on telling us which setting is ‘best’ for him. (ie. not their’s – so go away.) 👉
Tweet 10
Meanwhile the political heat has built up, so the school is asked “officially” to explain why our requests (which they agreed to in April) for a NEP update and a positive behaviour plan have not yet been done. And this is where it gets interesting…
Tweet 11
The school writes (responding to the politician) that the NEP HAS been updated and a positive behaviour plan HAS indeed been created and shared. This is surprising to us. We do some investigative work and now we’re pretty sure that the last NEP last was done in 2015.
Tweet 12
So, we’re running off a three year old NEP, with no update during a major transition. His last NEP is TOTALLY out of date. He’s struggling, the supports aren’t relevant, and he’s being repeatedly suspended. Why hasn’t the school or system picked up on this?
Tweet 13
By October the lad is forced into a part-time program against the written instructions of his mum. The school explains the reason. Apparently it’s “an accommodation to avoid suspension”. Yes, they’re removing him from school to prevent him from being removed from school.🥺
Tweet 14
A big education honcho writes that suspension for this boy has occurred as a necessity “only after strategies have been exhausted”. On page 17 of the system policy is states that an appropriate response to a suspension might be to… review the NEP. 🧐
Tweet 15
But it’s October 2018 now and we’re STILL running on the dusty 2015 NEP relic. Nothing practical or evidence based has been done. Suspensions keep coming. Apparently there’s time for suspension meetings, but not NEP meetings. The school keeps recommending alternative placement.
Tweet 16
Then the pressure and documentation pays off. The school admits that the last NEP was 2015. (They therefore were untruthful when responding to political pressure.) The principal and the school’s practice is 100% defended to the hilt by every single person from within the system.
Tweet 17
By year’s end the boy has had a hellish introduction to high school. 53 days suspended (or parts thereof). Mostly ‘disengaged’ behaviour. Another 3 days internally suspended. 3 days the mum is asked to ‘just keep him home’. 4 days he’s sent home early. 10 days = forced part-time.
Tweet 18
Overall: 73 days! For only 5 days was schoolwork supplied by the school.
I see on the forum of the FLO @ConversationEDU article I just linked, that some people are afraid of the Disability Royal Commission because it’s “negative”. What some students and families are experiencing is simply OUTRAGEOUS.
Tweet 19
And accountability structures within/outside systems are often ineffective. When unions suggest teachers are “at capacity”, remember that time is used, as in this case 👆: (1) gatekeeping, (2) using OUTDATED practices which are inefficient and poorly informed.
Tweet 20
The time is there, it’s just misused. Teacher prep plays a part here. So do associations. So do systems and schools. Even curriculum. (Why is racism mentioned three times in the Australian Curriculum, but ableism not once?) Funding is important, but more HOW it’s spent than the size of the bucket.
Tweet 21
This thread is not about “one school”, or “one system”, or indeed one state. In fact, I think there’s some really good stuff now happening in the inclusive space in SA. But my relative’s son is still disengaged. His connection to school is broken.
Tweet 22
I spoke to her yesterday to get permission to share her story. She told me she’d given up on schooling. Her son’s home during the day now (Year 9) – not at school, not being educated. He’s got a part-time job though. He had to fill out a lot of paperwork to get it, but he did it.
Tweet 23
The last time she was contacted about schooling she was offered a “behaviour learning centre”. It was the only option on the table. And, yes, he’s now tried alternative provision – shoe-horned into it eventually. He hated it so much he wouldn’t walk into the building.
Tweet 24 
As I mentioned in the Disability Royal Commission forum last night, alternative provision can enable schools to look away.
They certainly did in this case. 👆 These educational “options” or parental “choices” often pull children with disabilities, traumatised, from out of the river.
Tweet 25
But in the words of Desmond Tutu:
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in”.
I am not afraid of the Disability Royal Commission. I’m thankful that they’re looking upstream. 

[Cover photo © Scott Webb]

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