Armidale Secondary College has a dedicated Support Unit that provides support and assistance to kids that need significant extra help, including neurodivergent and disabled children. There is also a separate Learning Support Team that assist kids with disabilities and other learning challenges in the general classes.
It is generally felt kids in the Unit are somewhat, but not completely, buffered from the issues in the general school population. But some parents of kids supported by the Unit or the learning support team are concerned that, in part or whole due to the broader issues at the school, their kids aren’t getting the support they need.
Picked on for disabilities
Claire – not her real name – has three kids, two of whom are at ASC – we’ll call them Anna and Emma. All three have some challenges including ADHD and a behavioural disorder called ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’. Children with ODD are uncooperative, defiant, and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures, which makes school a pretty challenging place.
“Even at home I have trouble, like I say the sky is blue and they’ll argue with me about it,” Claire said.
The girls know what they need to do when they are in a confronting situation, and have ‘time out’ cards that they can show to the teacher to let them know they need to back off and leave the situation to calm down. But Claire says it doesn’t always happen.
“If a teacher keeps following them and talking at them when they’re trying to walk away, of course they’re going to react.”
“The teachers just need to really understand that they need to back off and let them calm down.”
Their ODD also means that some teachers don’t like them very much, and seem quick to punish. The girls got into trouble one day when they were trying to help another friend who was being beaten by a bully they had been having trouble with for some time. They tried to defend their friend who was being beaten up by pulling the bully off the victim.
As a result of trying to help their friend, Anna was suspended for 10 days, even though she has not been in trouble for anything other than attendance prior to the incident. The victim got suspended as well. But Claire says the bully was not.
“I spoke to the Deputy, and asked ‘why are they suspended when they were defending their friend?’.”
“It’s like they are being picked on because they have disabilities, rather than dealing with the bullies,” Claire said.
Missing the choice
Despite the challenges, Claire knows her girls can do well in school with the right support.
“My eldest daughter was originally at Armidale High and had similar issues there.”
“We switched her to Duval and she was doing really well.”
“Then, just as we’d got her all settled and sorted, they merged the two schools, and she went back to doing badly again.”
“Eventually it got to the point where it felt like there was no point in even trying.”
“It’s like they just washed their hands of her, couldn’t be bothered.”
Claire’s eldest is now out of school and doing ok, but the long term effects of what happened at school, and particularly the way she was discarded as not worth the effort, still affect her.
“Even to this day she’s still got issues and struggles with learning,” Claire said.
Claire is concerned the same attitude is affecting the schooling of her other two daughters, and that the school is not willing to bend in order to create an environment that is supportive of the girls.
“They have to follow their policies and procedures. They have that neat little box and don’t go outside, even when it is not in the interests of the child, or it is a reasonable accommodation for a child’s disability.”
Claire has tried talking to the school about the issues between her daughters and some of the teachers they struggle with, but says the teachers deny there is a problem and won’t help.
“They just don’t listen.”
Low attendance with flow on effects
The main indicator of things being not good at the school is that the girls don’t want to go. Like many of the other parents we have spoken to, it’s often the case that the kids are at school, just not in class.
“I’m constantly being called about them not being in school and having to be up there for meetings,” Claire said.
“But they just don’t seem to ever resolve issues between students and teachers so that students can feel comfortable so they’re going to go to class.”
Because of the low attendance, Claire says staff have punished the girls in inappropriate ways, and in one instance endangered Emma’s health.
“She could hear staff talking about her, and about her low attendance.”
“She said to me: ‘Mum I feel really sick, but they wouldn’t let me go home because of my low attendance’.”
Emma was very sick, and was taken to hospital in a lot of pain, with fears that it may have been appendicitis. Fortunately it wasn’t anything serious, and she recovered.
“But that could have been really serious,” Claire said.
Claire says she has spoken to the Department of Education about that matter, but they did not get her back to her.
Gone too far
Claire has suggested that the school work with allied health professionals to upskill their knowledge and understand the issues of neurodivergence and behavioural disabilities.
The school has recently assigned a school learning support officer (SLSO) for Emma but it doesn’t seem to be helping at all. Claire says she doesn’t get reports or information from the SLSO. And while some teachers are very good, they are let down by the school’s poor communication.
“I just don’t get any information from the school about what is being done.”
“I know it’s hard because Emma avoids a lot of classes, but it’s made worse by the poor communication and lack of appropriate support.”
“It’s gone too far, she will likely finish up next year and maybe go and do a traineeship or something.”
Claire wants teachers to do more than just say they understand.
“I know the bullying is an issue up there and that’s not going well. I’m more concerned about their learning and development.”
“They need to do more than just say they get it, they need to change they way they do things and focus on doing what’s best for the kids.”
This story is part of a series the New England Times is working on about Armidale Secondary College. Reports of violence, bullying, and other issues within the school are not dying down. We want to hear your stories – the good and the bad – whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or other interested member of the community.
Some of the content in these stories is distressing. If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
A minor edit to the introduction to this story was made to clarify that the Support Unit and Learning Support Teams are different elements of the support structures for students with disabilities at ASC.