Disability Representation on School Boards of Trustees.

Here in New Zealand, legislation and the New Zealand School Trustees Association, (“NZSTA”) both encourage school boards of trustees to be representative of their community. Specifically, they advise that when a school board is seeking to co-opt or appoint new members, it should be mindful of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic diversity. But I cannot find any mention of the need for a board to represent or reflect the fact that a school will always have a disabled population among its numbers, which is all the more important when this disabled population is typically the most vulnerable grouping within a school. The disabled are known to be a population that experiences high levels of abuse, exclusion, and discrimination, so why are school boards not expressly encouraged to seek out trustee members that can represent their interests and give them a voice at the highest level within the school?

By Salem (MA) Public Library, via Flickr

I was discussing the issue recently with a lecturer at a course I went along to; I was one of three parent speakers invited to share our stories of what works (and doesn’t work) when it comes to inclusion in schools. The lecturer encouraged me to write to the president of the NZSTA about the issue, which I did a few days ago. I have not received any response, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my email. Considering that I even identified myself as a trustee member of a school in that email – and thereby a member of the very organisations they represent – I would have hoped for at least a “hi, good point, let me get back to you.” I’ll wait a while longer before I pursue the matter further, but I am writing this post at this point anyway, because of a recent news story that illustrates why it is so important that the disabled have an understanding voice on the school board.

The story is one currently making its way through the courts. A 14 year old with Aspergers and Dyslexia, has been excluded from their school, presumably because of an incident with a skateboard, but the facts that are emerging are painting a pretty clear picture that the incident was just an excuse: The skateboard event appears to fall well short of the sort of thing that would justify excluding the child from the school. The school takes the position that it lacked resources for caring for this child, and that I think is the real point behind excluding the child (the family’s lawyer appears to be taking this line too), and is also an appalling state of affairs.

I don’t mean it’s appalling because the school lacked the resources, since I sincerely doubt it did in any simplistic or essential sense. In my experience – from reading these stories for years and talking directly to parents involved in such exclusions – schools don’t simply “lack resources,” rather they don’t prioritise the well-being of the disabled, they don’t allocate adequate money, time and teacher training to the care of these children, and the worst schools for these sorts of actions tend to have a deeply entrenched culture of thinking that the disabled don’t belong in their schools. That culture frequently carries through both principals and in boards of trustees. There was a recent study that bore out this truth in New Zealand; the most inclusive schools correlated with good attitudes from the top-down. It’s an important point, so I want to quote from my own earlier post that looked at this eye-opening study:

The 77% of schools that exhibited mostly inclusive practices… showed a particular and note-worthy trend that was again notably absent in the schools failing these students: Positive attitudes from those in leadership positions towards the inclusion of children with special needs. In the ‘few inclusive practices’ category, you’ll find Principals and other core staff who do not believe mainstreaming is appropriate or possible for our children, so it’s hardly surprising to see these attitudes affect other staff and practices across the school.

I’ve seen this in practice personally too. When I first visited my son’s current school – four years ago – it was not welcoming at all, either in terms of front-desk staff, or the principal or anyone else I interacted with there. There seemed to be an attitude of focusing on problems and saying they would find it difficult to deal with, and expressly told me money would be tight if they were to try to make it work. At the time, I chose not to send my son to the school. Two years later – with a new principal, and a new board of trustees in place – the welcome and attitudes were as different as night from day. The principal made it clear they were going to make it work, and exhibited a joy and acceptance towards their existing autistic children at the school. Is it now a perfect school that gets everything right? No, but when things go wrong they listen and they problem-solve and they work to make it right; you cannot overestimate the value of a good attitude when it comes to working with disabled children.

My story, and the 14-year-old Aspergers child’s story, and the stories of my friends; these are not isolated incidents. This issue is wide-spread in New Zealand, with parents being forced to move home to find a local school that will actually let their child attend, with parents being forced to quit work and home-school because they are left with no other option, and with vulnerable children being denied what other children get without question.

Are there children that are just too difficult for New Zealand schools? I’m sure there are, but many of the stories I hear and read about unambiguously go back to attitudes rather than the child themself being the insurmountable problem. The attitudes of other parents who pressure the school to get rid of the “different” child, the attitudes of staff and principals, and at the end of the day, the attitudes of the school’s board of trustees.

I would like to think that a board which at least had someone on it with some understanding of disability – whether from their training or experience or own family or self – would be that much less likely to turn to exclusion as the solution to a child who faces challenges. I would hope that boards with that sort of voice and perspective on it, would mean we rarely hear of these exclusions based on disability, that we could take some comfort that the relevance of the disability of the child had been truly taken into account when judging the child’s behaviour and when deciding what action to take as a school.

So I ask the president of the NZSTA to add the recommendation that boards actively pursue someone with at least some understanding of disability to join the board, to thereby recognise and openly acknowledge that disability is as much a part of our community as gender and ethnic differences. I asked her to put pressure on the Government to change their legislation to reflect this reality too. Depending on her response, I shall also ask particular members of parliament to pursue this change. And now I am asking you; write to the president of NZSTA, write and talk to your own school boards, write to your member of parliament, ask them to please take steps to actively encourage representation of the disabled at school board level. Even better, next time school board elections come around, please put your name forward, let’s get our voices where they will make a difference, let’s be the change in attitude that has to happen so these news stories of exclusion become few and far between, rather than the expected norm they have now become.

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7 Responses to Disability Representation on School Boards of Trustees.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is so true – the entire culture of a school makes all the difference. A culture of “yes” and figuring out how to do it works wonders compared to a culture of “no” and walking away. And the culture of “no” usually stems from fear – fear of change, fear of inconvenience, fear of “getting into trouble.” Your solution is an excellent idea.

  2. I plan to challenge the Polytechnic where I study as there is no disability rep on their student council and I know there used to be as my mum was it

  3. Sarah says:

    Did you ever hear back from the School Trustees Association? I would be interested to hear their response.

    • Thanks for the interest, and sorry about my slow response Sarah. I did get a reply back of sorts, it was not encouraging. It probably deserves an entire post to explain what they said and what they haven’t done, because it’s not easy to explain briefly. Short version: President never replied, the other person I sought a response from later replied that the president would reply (they never have), and then gave their own reply which showed they have an incorrect understanding of legislation in this area and completely misunderstood my request. Very frustrating to say the least.


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