A decision to suspend a Year 2 child with disabilities after a string of violent incidents has been set aside after it was found that the public school principal had other options at her disposal and had not met the requirements of the Education Act and the Education Directorate’s suspension policy.
The boy’s parents had sought a review of the one-day suspension handed out on 3 July 2019, but the Director-General had upheld it, so they then went to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
ACAT heard the case in September last year, handing down its decision on Christmas Eve.
The boy – who has epilepsy, poor motor skills and difficulty controlling his emotions – has not returned to the school in question, but the case highlights the challenges for educators and parents alike.
He was not the only child with disabilities at the school, which had developed an Individual Learning Plan and allocated a shared Learning Support Assistant.
ACAT was told that the boy had had an unsettled first half of 2019 with a change of teachers, time spent out of class and a lack of friends, as well as possible bullying.
The family’s relationship with the school was also fraying, and trust between them had declined.
On the day in question, the trigger had been an episode in the afternoon where the boy was drinking water dripping from a gutter and been told by a girl it was bad for him.
For unknown reasons, this enraged him and he has rushed at the girl and pushed her up against a wall. The girl told a teacher that the boy tried to strangle her although it was unclear whether this was the case.
He also swiped his hand against the face of a second girl before running off to an upstairs area where he kicked at least one other student, and began taping classroom doors shut muttering about ”stupid girls” and ”I’ll kill them”.
He then ran downstairs knocking over another child as he went and eventually made his way to the deputy principal’s office where his father, who had arrived to pick him up, found him calmer but still in a heightened state and unresponsive.
By then the principal had decided – based on the boy’s violence to other students, his non-compliance and his failure to de-escalate – to suspend the boy for a day to allow for a ‘Protective Action Plan’ to be developed.
Apparently, there had also been an incident the day before, but then he had been able to calm down.
The boy’s father had argued that the suspension was unwarranted, the evidence was insufficient and the response punitive.
ACAT focused on the requirements for suspension under the Education Act and directorate policy and found the principal fell short, also finding that the boy’s circumstances had not fully been taken into account.
It found the principal had failed to consult the boy’s father before deciding on suspension, and the internal review had not presented the school’s version of events to the father as required under the policy.
The principal had also not documented events adequately for the parents and had not considered alternatives to suspension.
From the point of view of the ACT, ACAT did not believe that the boy was “persistently and wilfully non-compliant” or was a threat to the good order of the school.
It questioned the principal’s rush to suspension, although she had argued that safety was her priority and had stressed the immediacy and urgency of the situation.
”Surely a decision-maker would hesitate to impose a suspension … if it appears probable that the behaviour prompting the suspension is in part a manifestation of one of the child’s underlying disabilities,” ACAT said.
Previous evidence from the deputy principal had acknowledged that the boy may have been unable, rather than unwilling, to control his emotions on the afternoon of 3 July.
It said courses of action other than suspension were available, including a more therapeutic approach to the boy rather than investigatory.
”Other options were also available: the in-school alternate program described in the guidelines accompanying the policy, in which the child attends school but does not join in with other students; or an informal request to the applicant to keep his son at home for a day, the effect of which would have been the same as suspension but without the formalities and the punitive appearance of those formalities,” ACAT said.
It said the Act’s overarching principle was the right of every child to a high-quality education.
”With that in mind, and taking all the circumstances of this matter into account, we have concluded that the correct or preferable decision was not to exercise the discretion to suspend the applicant’s child, but rather to pursue one of the alternatives identified above. Accordingly, we set aside the decision under review and substitute our decision that no action is to be taken under section 36 of the Act,” ACAT found.
The names of individuals involved and the school have been withheld to protect the identity of the child.