If used properly, rooms in schools to isolate children with behavioural problems can be helpful to special needs students and staff, says a former teacher whose career ended after she was violently attacked in her classroom.
The controversial practice of placing students in isolation rooms was raised last week when CBC News reported that two Sherwood Park parents have launched a lawsuit alleging their 12-year-old autistic son was stripped naked and locked in an isolation room, where he was later found covered in his own feces.
Pamela Orr said she was violently assaulted in her own classroom in February 2010 by a 17-year-old special needs student.
As a result of her injuries, Orr said, she now struggles to stand and walk, to remember, and to handle the simple tasks of daily living.
She called on the province to conduct a review of special needs education that would take into account the issue of staff safety.
“We need to rethink all of special education,” said Orr. “This is not about crisis intervention, this is not about hiring more EAs, because that’s just a Band-Aid.
“We’re not talking about the children who need some minimal interventions. We are talking about students who have, for whatever reason, whatever special needs, they have the potential to kill someone.”
Orr said governments must set standards for student-teacher ratios, and for staff training.
‘I couldn’t scream’
On the day she was attacked, Orr was teaching a group of high-needs students in the St. Albert Catholic school district.
It happened toward the end of the day, when students were getting ready to leave. It was noisy in the room, she said, and for an instant she turned her back on one student who appeared especially out of sorts that day.
“This student came up behind me and put me in a choke hold, and was pulling my neck,” she said. “The student kept pulling and pulling and pulling my neck. I tried screaming. I couldn’t scream.”
Orr said she struggled to break free and finally pushed backward and landed on the floor, with the student on top of her.
Her head, neck and jaw slammed into the floor.
“It was ka-boom, and I literally felt like my spine was going to explode,” she said, shifting uncomfortably in her wheelchair. “It was awful.”
No longer able to teach, Orr said her life is now consumed by hours of medical appointments.
Advocates call for regulations, or ban
The use of isolation rooms came to public attention last week after the media reported on a lawsuit launched against Alberta’s education minister, the Elk Island Public School board and staff members at Clover Bar Junior High School in Sherwood Park.
A statement of defence filed on behalf of the school board and staff denies the allegations.
The lawsuit was cited at a news conference held last week by an advocacy group called Inclusion Alberta, which called for isolation rooms to be regulated or banned.
Education Minister David Eggen responded by launching a review of isolation rooms, saying his department in the next few weeks will come up with guidelines for their use.
“We do have to balance the education assistant and teacher safety with care and attention for students as well,” said Eggen.
David Keohane, superintendent for Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, confirmed that an “accident” involving a student happened in February 2010. He said he won’t comment on human resource issues, or about any incident that may have involved Orr.
“In terms of care for the employee, in this case as it sits, on the accountability piece, every step was taken by the district to assure that,” said Keohane.
Orr said “99 per cent” of students are non-violent.
She misses her life as a teacher, and daily contact with students.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else,” she said.
Isolation rooms can work, she said, if used properly.
“It’s just time for [students] to calm down, or read a book, so they can get integrated back into the class,” she said. “You absolutely have to have a supervisor in there with them, who is trained to calm that child down.”
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Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area. It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary, generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road). Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.
Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016, Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.
Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.
The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton. The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.