B.C. school district told to pay student $5,000 for failing to address her anxiety

B.C. school district told to pay student $5,000 for failing to address her anxiety

An unnamed school district in British Columbia has been ordered by the province’s human rights tribunal to pay $5,000 to a student for failing to accommodate her anxiety disorder.

Tribunal vice-chair Devyn Cousineau said in a decision released last month that the school district “failed to take reasonable steps” to investigate and address the female student’s anxiety over her transition to high school in fall 2018.

The family had filed the human rights complaint in 2020 accusing the school district of discrimination based on her placement into a language class that “exacerbated her disabilities and impaired her ability to access her education.”

While Cousineau rejected part of the complaint, she found the school district failed “to reasonably respond” when the student’s family brought their concerns to the district in April 2019.

“The parent had brought forward relevant facts of the student’s diagnoses and the toll that school was taking on her,” Cousineau’s judgment said.

“I do not accept that the onus was entirely on the parent or student to utter the magic word of ‘accommodation’ before the school took steps to explore the reasons that the student’s mental health was being so impacted by school,” she said. “Nor do I accept that the simple fact that a 13-year-old child with anxiety says they are ‘fine’ is enough to end a school’s obligations.”

The case stemmed from the student’s move from a unique language arts program in elementary school, to regular language high school classes due to enrolment numbers not being able to support a separate class.

According to the tribunal decision, the unidentified student had been diagnosed since kindergarten with anxiety and has been on medication since Grade 7.

The decision document said the student’s anxiety levels started escalating after she entered the more advanced language class, with the harder course material and an “unsupportive” teacher both contributing to higher stress.

“There is no dispute that (the new teacher’s) teaching style focuses on memorization and testing,” the decision document said. “This was a big change from the ‘play-based’ learning the student had experienced in elementary school.”

The tribunal decision also said the student felt the teacher laughed at her for making mistakes, an allegation denied by the teacher.

The family of the student began noting symptoms of heightened anxiety, including the youth being chronically exhausted and pulling out her eyebrows to cope with stress.

The student’s parent relayed their experiences to a school counsellor in April 2019, but the counsellor did not take further steps after speaking directly with the student, who said she was “doing well.”

But Cousineau said in the decision that the information about the student’s symptoms “should have been enough to prompt a meaningful inquiry by the school to identify what was triggering (them) and what supports or accommodations may be appropriate to ensure she was able to meaningfully and equitably access her education.”

“The failure to take that step was, in my view, not reasonable,” the decision said.

According to the document, the student said she was OK because she was trying to make the issue go away.

“I just wanted everything to be OK, so I said that it was,” the student told the tribunal, according to the document.

“I didn’t want to make more of a hassle than was already happening so I didn’t want to add on it.”

The situation did not improve until the teacher went on leave for most of the student’s Grade 9 year. Her grades improved under replacement teachers with whom she was “happy,” the decision said.

Cousineau said in the decision that while the school district did not discriminate against the student by placing her in a regular language class, the situation was mishandled in a number of ways.

Cousineau said one such instance was the school’s principal forgetting to tell the student’s family about the “last-minute” decision to place her in a regular class, leading to suspicion from the parent that the school “deliberately hid information.”

Names of the parties involved were all removed to protect the student’s privacy, the tribunal said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2024.

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