Educating Claudia

By Kerstin Scheel

Eighteen-year-old Claudia was in and out of school but the system never met her needs. We had several stints of home education which, although challenging, was the best option available for much of the time.

Claudia has Down Syndrome and educating her has been a continual battle in terms of both appropriate provision and funding.

During the prep transition process, we were welcomed by the school, the principal gave me instructions on the funding application process for an integration aide and Claudia had all her assessments done. Claudia’s future teacher told me how delighted she was to have Claudia in her class and that she was looking forward to the following year. However, the funding granted by the Department of Education (DET) was only level two which equates to around two hours of aide time per day. This was unacceptable as Claudia required a full-time aide, not only to support her, but also the teacher. After trying several times to get her funding increased with DET to no avail, I contacted the newspaper, who ran a front-page story. Exactly one week before school started, I received a phone call from DET saying that Claudia’s funding was increased to a level four (26 hours per week) and was asked quite sarcastically, ‘are you happy now?’

So, Claudia joined her siblings at school where her teacher quickly became cold and abrupt with me. On the second day when I went to collect Claudia, her teacher stormed out saying, ‘I’m not a bloody babysitter, she does nothing.’ Within a couple of days, they moved Claudia to another classroom, but the teacher there was not much more welcoming. I had serious concerns.

When I went to collect Claudia one day, I heard her crying and calling for me and I found her lying face down on the classroom floor. Her aide was on the other side of the room ignoring her, as were the two teachers in the classroom. I was mortified! The next time I picked her up, I found her sitting in a corner with an empty plastic container to play with. Again, her aide and the teachers completely ignoring her. I demanded to know what was going on and why they were treating Claudia this way. They told me that she didn’t want to do anything so they just left her to do what she wanted. I was shocked and angry. I tried to see the principal but he had left. The following day a friend and I hung around outside Claudia’s classroom to see what was going on. I saw the teacher pick up the phone and five minutes later the principal came storming up the hall towards me. He got right in my face, pointing his finger and yelling at me, ‘She can’t come here, she can’t come here, she is a problem for my teachers.’ He was so angry and red in the face, I was very intimidated and thought he was going to punch me. My friend was also shocked. He kicked us out of the school and said he’d call the police if we didn’t leave. I was numb with shock; my friend grabbed me and drove me home. When I rang the Department to complain, they were already aware of what had happened and tried to tell me that my daughter was a disruption to the class because she wouldn’t do as she was told and was therefore a problem for her teachers. They did not want to listen to anything I had to say about the way Claudia was being treated and how her integration aide wasn’t even supporting her. Instead, they kept putting the blame on my disabled daughter.

I knew that I was fighting a losing battle and if Claudia stayed at this school, things would only get worse for her; I feared for her safety and wellbeing. I lost total trust in the school and decided to remove my three children.

I rang several schools in my local area to enquire about enrolment. With the first two, I was upfront and explained I had a child with special needs. I was told they were not able to help me as classes were full. I decided not to mention the Down Syndrome to the next two schools and both were eager to enrol my kids. In further discussions, I told them of Claudia’s special needs and they were still happy to enrol the kids. However, within a couple of days, both schools phoned me back, one saying that they actually couldn’t enrol my kids as their classes were full and the other saying they did not have staff equipped to handle Claudia’s needs and could not offer her an enrolment, but my other two children were more than welcome.

I finally spoke to a vice principal of a small local school (they had no principal at the time). I was upfront with him about our situation and what we had been through. He invited us to come to the school and have a look around and have a chat. He was refreshingly welcoming of Claudia and said that she should be given a chance. He asked if I would like to be involved in the hire of the integration aide. He also asked questions about Claudia’s needs and what they could do to support her. I was absolutely stunned!

I felt that this was too good to be true and sadly it was! Although Rov, the vice principal, was super-supportive, most of the teachers at the school were far from it. For instance, Claudia’s teacher was rude, cruel and ignorant. She was appalled that she had to have my daughter in her class and said to me, ‘She needs to be in a special school where she belongs.’ She would not even allow Claudia to sit with the other students and had set up a table at the back of the room for her away from everyone else. She refused to include her in anything. I was heartbroken. Although Rob tried to intervene, this woman always found ways to exclude Claudia. Thankfully Claudia had two amazing integration aides who went above and beyond to give her a positive school experience. At the end of first term, the teacher had a serious car accident and was absent from school for the next two terms. The temporary teacher was a breath of fresh air. She LOVED having Claudia in her class and everything changed. Claudia started to thrive at school, was included in everything and had many friends. In term four, the class teacher came back and, to my utter astonishment, was a completely different person! She was friendly, helpful and supportive of Claudia and included her in everything.

The following year saw a new principal hired and things went downhill pretty quickly. He put a stop to Claudia’s aide supporting her at lunch and recess, saying there was not enough funding to cover those times. This placed Claudia in danger of being hurt in the playground. She also wouldn’t go into the class when the bell went and her aide had to go out to look for her. On several occasions, Claudia wandered off and it took her aide 20 minutes to find her. In addition to this, Claudia was placed in a class where several other children required an aide but were not eligible. Claudia’s aide was told that she had to support those children. So, Claudia’s funding was used to support three other children! I was also expected to buy whatever supports and learning aides Claudia needed as I was told the school had no money in the budget to supply anything she needed. I later found out through the vice principal that the school had $7000 in the budget for special needs. I tried to get access to those funds for Claudia’s needs but was repeatedly told it didn’t exist. Instead I had to pay for all her supports.

Claudia started going downhill as she was no longer fully supported. She was expected to do the same work as the other children without adequate material modifications. She was falling behind, failing to thrive and reluctant to attend. At this time, her twin Jasper and older sister Danica also had school issues and, in desperation, I took all three out of the school system and contacted HEN for advice about how to home educate.

I found home education difficult at first as I tried a complete ‘school at home’ approach which did not fare well with the kids. They were highly strung and stressed so, after a short time, I decided to give them time to relax and de-stress, and we did a lot of play-based activities. I started researching, found lots of resources and prepared for lots of different activities across the curriculum. I also got help from Rob who was very encouraging. We did awesome projects, made contact with other families and started having loads of fun and exciting, meaningful learning.

At times, meeting everyone’s educational and social needs at home was difficult and Danica decided to try yet another school for grade three. She went for three terms and quit.

Then we tried a 20 pupil community school where Claudia was very welcome and happy. However, in public school she had been eligible for $24,000 in funding but in the private system, she was only eligible for $3000. I took to the steps of parliament in a bid to have funding attached to the child, not the school, but to no avail. As a result, I could only afford for Claudia to attend part-time and I worked at the school to help pay the fees.

After only one term, I was stretched so thin, I had to send Claudia to Croydon Special Development School where her full funding was reinstated. She was enrolled for three years there and attended for approximately three terms in that whole time. It wouldn’t surprise me if the school continued to collect funding for her even when she wasn’t there.

Claudia had some traumatic experiences there. One time she came home on the bus and could not walk down the bus steps; I had to carry her as she was clearly in pain. It turned out she had two broken toes. The school had not notified me of any incident, there was nothing written in her communication book and, when I contacted them, I was told that they hadn’t noticed anything wrong with her. Another time while we were waiting for the start of classes, she was suddenly punched at least half a dozen times by a senior boy sitting next to her. She was hit so hard that she was thrown off her chair. The aides and teachers present did not come to help her and made no comment except to tell me to take it up with the principal, who wasn’t available. Needless to say, I took her straight home.

Other parents confided some very disturbing treatment of their children to me, including a child in Claudia’s class who had been hit in the chest with the end of a seesaw. When the child complained of chest pain that evening, her mum took her to hospital and discovered that she had sustained a broken sternum. There was no incident report written at the school and they completely denied that anything had happened. The child was off school for a full term. Recently this school appeared in a Leader article reporting on a child that had been found gagged, bound and with his pants down on the school grounds.

With Danica and Jasper now at high school, Claudia wanted to try school again, so I enrolled her at Vermont South Special School where she remained enrolled for a year but attended less than two terms in total.

After this Claudia wanted to try secondary school so I enrolled her at Heatherdale High School. She broke her ankle (not at school) and they were unable to cater for her whilst she was in a wheelchair for three months. Seriously — a special school that couldn’t cater for a wheelchair!

So, we were back to home education again. By this time Jasper and Danica had also quit school and were pursuing online courses etc. However, they were both doing their own thing much of the time and being moody teenagers. Claudia was very lonely and I began looking at options again. I happened to come across a special school in Dromana and went to check it out. Again, it seemed too good to be true but I heard many good reports about it from various sources and people. The kids and I talked about moving there and we all thought it was a good idea as it would give Claudia three more years at school; hopefully, she would make some friends. It started out as a very good thing. Claudia’s teacher George had home schooled his own five children on and off so he had a very laid back easy-going approach. He took Claudia under his wing and she loved it there for a couple of years. After 18 months, she moved into a new class and didn’t gel with the new teacher. At 17, it didn’t seem worth trying to find another school so we returned to home education.

Claudia turned 18 this year; she loves fashion and art and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Although her education is officially ‘over’ as far the department is concerned, I’ll be educating her for many years to come. With proper support, education could have been a whole different story.

From Otherways issue 153

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