Spring 2024

Reflections on a Recent Human Rights Decision in Public Education

The Board of Inquiry decision in a complaint filed with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission by the parents of a student, Carter Churchill, against the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District was released on March 1, 2023 following a lengthy and live-streamed hearing during the late summer and early fall of 2022.  This case received a great deal of media attention in the province at all stages of the process – the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) and many NLTA members followed the proceedings closely.  I listened in with interest to as much of the online streaming of the hearings as I could, and I have read the final decision closely.  The ruling is a significant one for this province, our public K-12 education system, teachers, school administrators and students.

The Human Rights complaint filed by Carter Churchill’s parents alleged that the District discriminated against their son, who is deaf, by failing to implement appropriate accommodations so that he could access K-12 education services that are offered to the public. My intention in this short piece is not to opine on the specific outcome of the case, the Chief Adjudicator’s findings that discrimination did occur, or the remedy granted.  I will not comment on the past or current status of K-12 education services and supports for students who are deaf or hard of hearing as this is not my area of expertise.  However, there are some key takeaways from this decision relevant to appropriate supports for students and schools that stand out for me and which I think are important for school leaders and teachers to be aware of:

  1. Teachers and School Administrators care deeply about their students and do the best they can, as professionals, with what they have to work with; but, they do not determine or control the allocation of human resources to schools.  Based on the evidence in this case, the adjudicator found that,

    The school was trying to provide the best education it had with the resources it was allowed by the District. (p. 46)
  2. The expertise and experience of teachers in the field, on the front lines in our schools should inform employer decisions on the allocation and deployment of resources in a manner that will best meet student needs.  Decision makers should be listening to teachers, not ignoring them or preventing them from discussing their ideas and recommendations with parents and guardians. The adjudicator stated,

    I reiterate that during this school year the roster of Itinerant Teachers of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing [ITDHHs], re-submitted their proposal that the District establish a Satellite Support Classroom for Students who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, a proposal which would have responded to the requirements of the [student’s] ISSP. … It was not pursued by the District. (p. 55)

    … the roster of ITDHHs repeatedly raised concerns with District personnel. … The ITDHH submitted proposals recommending significant changes in the delivery of education services for this cohort [of students]. … The proposals were summarily rejected without being adequately evaluated and explored. … I also find that when the roster of ITDHHs raised concerns with their superiors they were discouraged from discussing their concerns with parents. … The Churchills were deprived of the opportunity to advocate for the satellite classroom proposal or other similar change. (pp.86-87)

    I am particularly concerned by the District’s … failure to respond to the concerns raised by its roster of ITDHH.  These teachers were sounding the alarm with respect to the programming being offered to students with severe language delays … At times they explicitly framed this as a Human Rights issue. … Their proposals were dismissed summarily without being properly explored or evaluated by the District. (p. 106)
  3. Inclusion does not always mean that all students are best served by being in the regular classroom setting with their peers all the time.  There should be an adequate continuum of supports and services, offered in the most appropriate setting and respecting the dignity of the student(s).  In this case, the adjudicator found that the teachers’ recommended approach was the correct path forward,

    In my view the implementation of the DHH Classroom (Grade 4 onward) appropriately responds to Carter’s needs. (p. 72)

    The only solution which appears to adequately address Carter’s need was to remove him from the mainstream and offer an alternative setting where he could receive intensive intervention … This seems to have been understood by the District’s roster of ITDHH and it motivated them to seek changes in programming. (p. 83)

In his decision, the adjudicator referenced and relied upon the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Moore v. British Columbia (Education), which was the final culmination of a Human Rights complaint filed in British Columbia by the parents of a student with a learning disability, Jeffrey Moore. This was a landmark decision on disability rights in which the Court ruled that supports for students with disabilities must be adequate to ensure students have meaningful access to education services. Interestingly, the NLTA’s 2016 written submission and detailed presentation to the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Educational Outcomes focussed particular attention on the issue of inclusive education and the potential impact of the Moore decision in Newfoundland and Labrador. This was the same school year that Carter Churchill started kindergarten. To summarize, very briefly, the Association argued in its brief to the Panel that, in its approach to resourcing the Inclusive Education Model,

… it seems the Provincial Government is not living up to its human rights obligation to provide to students the required accommodations they need to fully participate in the public education system, leaving the NLTA to question how many Jeffrey Moores we have in this province. (p. 13)

During the period of time reviewed by the adjudicator in the Churchill decision, I had the privilege of working with some of the teachers in question, providing support for them in appropriately and professionally bringing their concerns and ideas to the District’s attention in writing.  Overall, I see this ruling as a win from the educators’ perspective.  Teachers and school administrators are highly qualified professionals; they are on the ground, in schools with students; they know when resources are being spread too thinly, they can see what is working and what is not, and they have the knowledge to advise on effective solutions.  In the case of Carter Churchill, the DHH teachers’ assessment of the problems and suggestions for resolving them proved, in the end, to be what was needed.  Their colleagues in the school and on the student’s ISSP/IEP teams, and the student’s parents should not have been left to make decisions without the benefit of their expertise and considered assessment of the situation. 

Regardless of the end result, I also recognize that nobody wants to be called as a witness in such matters, whatever the outcome.  I have been in that chair, multiple times, and it is always stressful, regardless of the strength and integrity of one’s evidence.  Hopefully, one of the lessons learned and impacts of this decision moving forward will be greater acceptance of and respect for the professional perspectives of and proposals from educators who are on the front lines every day with the students of our province.  Students and teachers deserve no less.

Hindsight now shows us the wisdom and strength of teachers and administrators putting their professional observations, concerns and recommendations in writing to those who hold the purse strings of public education. It is clear from the Churchill decision that things could have been very different had the teachers been listened to earlier. 

By Stefanie Tuff, Executive Director, Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association

Churchill v Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, 2023 CanLII 16071 (NL HRC)
Moore v British Columbia (Education), 2012 SCC 61 (CanLII), [2012] 3 SCR 360
NLTA Submission to the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Educational Outcomes (http://files.nlta.nl.ca/wp-content/uploads/public/documents/ptfsubmission_jan17.pdf)

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