The Ontario Autism Coalition is urging the government to investigate after a seven-year-old boy with limited verbal ability wandered off from school in early January wearing nothing but a t-shirt.
Neelam Rasheid said she was notified of her son’s absence from the Ajax, Ont. school via an email on Jan. 9. The school said the child was found within a couple minutes by a neighbour.
“A million questions started to rest in my head,” Rasheid told reporters on Thursday.
She looked up who the neighbour was and discovered it was a 10 minute walk away from the school, through a wooded area.
“That neighbour, who I now refer to as my son’s guardian angel … advised me that she had seen my son from her kitchen window, walking through the woods in the winter storm in only a t-shirt. He had on no jacket, no hat, no boots,” she said through tears.
“They eventually caught up to him at the end of the woods, to a busy four-lane road. My son was found running back and forth on the road with vehicles having to slow down to avoid hitting him.”
Speaking with the neighbour, who also provided video evidence with a timestamp, Rasheid learned that her son, Zak, had actually been missing from school for about 35 minutes—not the three to four minutes as she was originally told.
Zak was found shivering and soaking wet from head to toe, but the school did not call an ambulance.
Rasheid’s son has autism and is supposed to have a dedicated Education Assistant (EA) assigned to him. In the event that he does elope, the school is responsible for calling his parents and the police.
CTV News Toronto reached out to Zak’s school and was referred to the school board for comment.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Durham District School Board said Zak does have direct support personnel, however he “temporarily moved away from their support.”
“Due to the urgency of the situation, our immediate focus was on ensuring the student’s safety. We appreciate the support of the community in helping to locate the student and are grateful the student is safe. We regret the situation and are committed to reviewing and reinforcing our safety protocol to prevent future occurrences,” the statement read.
The family has asked that the school name not be released out of privacy concerns.
Rasheid says she has now lost all trust in the school and their ability to keep her son safe.
“I’ve never felt so vulnerable and powerless against an institution, but sadly, this is our educational system.”
The Ontario Autism Coalition is calling for an investigation into the incident, as there are still unanswered questions about how Zak wandered off, when staff noticed, and the protocol that was followed after.
They are also calling for additional support for kids with disabilities to be included in the province’s spring budget.
Kate Dudley-Logue, vice president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, noted that one-on-one EAs aren’t commonly available in the Durham District School Board, as it has become too expensive a program to run.
“It’s a horrific story, and unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more common in schools across this province,” Dudley-Logue said.
“While we used to talk about whether kids with special education needs were receiving meaningful access to curriculum, today we are more concerned with whether or not our kids are receiving enough support to just be at school safely at all.”
Chronic underfunding and staffing shortages have meant EAs are assigned to work with small groups of students, and sometimes multiple groups throughout the course of the day.
“The next time, this story could end a lot more tragically, and the fault will not lie with our educators who are doing everything they can to keep our kids safe and keep their education strong,” Dudley-Logue said. “It’s going to fall on the hand of this government who is standing wilfully by and doing nothing about it.”
In a statement to CTV News Toronto, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said what happened to Zak is “unaaceptable.”
“I have asked the board to provide a full account of the incident, and to develop a plan to ensure this never happens to any student again,” he said.
The provincial government has said its Special Education Grant, which provides financial support for the costs of programs and services for students with special education needs, is projected to increase to $3.4 billion in the 2023-2024 academic year — an increase of approximately $124.5 million.