Mar 14, 2012

Christy Clark, George Abbott – meet Jeffrey Moore


There’s a freight train heading for BC’s education system — and it’s not being driven by government or teachers.

This train hit the tracks long before the current collective bargaining dispute. Its operator is an eight-year-old boy from North Vancouver, named Jeffrey Moore. With the support of his family, Jeffrey is driving a human rights case, initiated over a decade ago, which could impact public education in this province in a deeply positive way.

The facts of the case date back to the early 90s, when Jeffrey, a child with Dyslexia, started public elementary school in North Vancouver District 44. Due to his severe learning disability, it was recommended that Jeffrey attend a special program of intensive remediation, provided by the District since 1976, and necessary for him to learn effectively.

Intensive remediation at this early stage of Jeffrey’s life was absolutely critical. But just before his entrance into the program, it was cut.

Budget pressures. Financial crisis. No other option, said the District. Sorry.

Jeffrey should attend a private school, at his family’s expense, if he wants to get an education, said District staff.

None of our business, said the Ministry of Education, which had been underfunding the District for several years.

Apparently, BC’s public system of education that, by definition, is supposed to be for everyone, wasn’t for Jeffrey.

Seeing no other choice, Jeffrey’s family enrolled him in a private school that was able to accommodate his disability. They also filed a complaint, which made its way to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The Moores alleged that the District and the Ministry discriminated against Jeffrey on the basis of his disability.

The Tribunal agreed, finding that the public education system should have accommodated Jeffrey’s learning needs. The Tribunal also found that the District and the Ministry had systemically discriminated against children with severe learning disabilities by cutting the intensive remediation program without ensuring that other sufficient programs remained available, and by disproportionately cutting core accommodations for children with severe learning disabilities in tight fiscal times. Although the District had been in a difficult financial position, there were a range of options available to save money. At the same time as it was cutting the intensive remediation program, the District had maintained popular, yet non-core, programs, to its financial detriment.

Additionally, the Tribunal found that the Ministry had systemically discriminated against children with severe learning disabilities by arbitrarily capping funding available to support them, and by failing to provide systemic oversight to ensure that the public education system was inclusive of all children, including those with disabilities.

In addition to ordering compensation for Jeffrey and his family, the Tribunal ordered the Ministry to fund students with severe learning disabilities appropriately, and to ensure that school districts implement suitable programs and services to meet their needs. The District was ordered to ensure that it had in place a range of services necessary for students like Jeffrey.

Unfortunately, the Tribunal’s decision was reversed by the BC Supreme Court and a majority of judges on the Court of Appeal. Next week, Jeffrey – now in his 20s – and his lawyers will ask the Supreme Court of Canada to restore the Tribunal’s decision.

If they’re successful, will it mean more funding and supports immediately for students with learning disabilities and their teachers in BC? It probably should; however, court decisions rarely result in this type of direct, tangible, systemic impact.

But, at the very least, a positive decision for Jeffrey should provide British Columbians with a tool for compelling government to design and implement public education in a way that is inclusive of, and accessible to, students with learning disabilities. It could also establish a precedent for holding government accountable for special education funding cuts and caps that are not reasonably necessary.

Moreover, beyond children with special needs and the public education system in BC, Jeffrey’s case at the Supreme Court of Canada could more broadly advance other efforts of people with disabilities across Canada seeking inclusive public services and accountable public institutions.

All aboard. Next stop: Ottawa.

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