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April 1, 2004

'Box' punishment angers city family

From: Calgary Herald, Canada - Apr 1, 2004

Teacher placed Down Syndrome boy in enclosure

Leanne Dohy
Calgary Herald
Thursday, April 01, 2004

A Calgary couple wants a face-to-face apology from the teacher's aides who made their 16-year-old disabled son sit in a box-like enclosure as a disciplinary measure when he was "unco-operative" after coming back from lunch.

Terry and Betty Shawchuk pulled their son, Adam, out of St. Helena Junior High a week ago, after repeated conversations and letters about the March 1 incident did not bring any resolution.

"He's been home for a week, and he's not going back to that school," an emotional Terry Shawchuk said Wednesday. "If they won't even stand up and say they're sorry, we're not going to send him back there."

Calgary Catholic School District would not comment on the incident directly, but apologies have been offered by the principal and the boy's regular teacher, whose class was being taught that day by a substitute.

But the Shawchuks say the incident won't be over until the teacher's aides who put him in the cardboard enclosure tell Adam what they did was wrong.

After three formal meetings, three letters exchanged and some 32 phone calls, the Shawchuks say that school officials would only have the aides apologize if Adam comes to the meeting without his parents.

Adam, who is deaf and has Down syndrome, functions at about the emotional and intellectual level of a five-year-old, and communicates through sign language.

"There won't be any meeting unless we're there to support our son," Shawchuk said.

Betty Shawchuk found her son inside the cardboard structure when she went to the school to pick him up March 1.

"I went into the class, and looked to the right -- no Adam. I looked to the left -- no Adam," she remembered.

"Then I see the aide come out of this structure, and close it behind her. As it closes, Adam sees me, and he says 'Mommy!' "

Shawchuk was astounded, and says she and the aide "exchanged words."

"I was upset," she said. "I told her, 'You should try your tactics on yourself.' She just said, 'I'm sorry you feel that way.' "

Terry Shawchuk immediately contacted the principal of St. Helena, who offered what Shawchuk called a heartfelt apology, as well as an assurance that it would never happen again in the school. But Shawchuk, who says Adam was already having nightmares and anxiety attacks about going to school, wanted Adam to hear an apology from the individuals responsible.

The use of trifold cardboard is an accepted practice within schools.

Judy MacKay, superintendent of instructional services, said that the three-sided structures are used to offer students a quiet, less distracting place to work, or as a place to calm down during times of emotional upset.

"It is not used as a punishment," MacKay said.

The Shawchuks refuted the claim, saying that the trifolds were frequently used for "time outs" in Adam's special needs classroom, where five adults work with eight students.

Betty Shawchuk said that at least two of the cardboard screens were propped together to enclose the boy in walls more than five feet tall.

At four foot seven, Adam wouldn't have been able to see out even if he stood.

"What if he had to go to the bathroom?" Terry Shawchuk asked. "He'd have been sitting in there signing 'toilet.' "

Elizabeth Dolman, executive director of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, is horrified at the incident and is demanding an investigation be launched.

"It's unbelievable to me," Dolman said. "It goes against everything we believe. It shows society at its very worst."

She said the use of even one trifold screen in disciplining a deaf child is appalling.

"What kind of a message does this send to the other children in that classroom? I can't even imagine what that young man has gone through because of this," Dolman said.

Cardboard structures are sometimes used in dealing with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to Joanne Baxter, an instructor in Mount Royal College's department of child and youth services.

"It has been a practice in some places to use them to help children in classroom settings to focus, by taking away visual stimulus," Baxter said.

"It seems to me that in a case where the child had a hearing impairment -- with no other way to communicate than visually -- it wouldn't be a strategy that should be used.

"I would hope that the parents would be able to advocate, and say, 'That's not a technique that works for my child.' "


© The Calgary Herald 2004