Okanagan Skaha sees double the average of troubled students

Some 288 kids in the Okanagan Skaha School District, about 4.6 per cent of the student body, designated as requiring support

Troubled kids represented a sizable portion of the student population and generated a significant amount of supplementary funding for local schools last year.

Some 288 kids in the Okanagan Skaha School District, about 4.6 per cent of the student body, had one of the two designations that can be applied to learners with behaviour or mental-health issues.

Students who display aggression or hyperactivity and have a “very disruptive” effect in the classroom can be designated as requiring “moderate” support, according to a policy manual produced by the B.C. Ministry of Education.

More serious cases are deemed to require “intensive” intervention when students demonstrate “extremely disruptive” behaviours and may present a “serious risk” to themselves and others, and who are also in contact with outside agencies like youth corrections.

Diagnosed mental-health issues are similarly categorized.

As of Sept. 30, 2011, 157 students had a “moderate” designation, while another 131 fit the “intensive” criteria, according to figures obtained from the Okanagan Skaha School District through a freedom of information request.

Kids who present a risk to themselves and others are typically placed in an alternate education program where they receive “more structured support,” said Pam Butters, the district administrator responsible for special education.

She also noted that an individual education plan must be completed by all kids with designations, which are reviewed twice annually and can be modified or lifted.

Designations are applied by psychologists in consultation with parents and school staff, and are meant to identify kids who need extra help, she explained. The “intensive” designations also qualify the district for supplemental funding from the province, which totalled $1.4 million last year.

While the policy manual states that students with “intensive” designations are “expected to be less than one per cent of the student population provincewide,” the local figure stood at 2.5 per cent last year.

Provincewide, the figure was 1.2 per cent, unchanged from 2007-08, according to data provided by the ministry, which expects variations at the district level due to the composition and size of different student populations.

Butters said the provincial guideline isn’t a cap, but she is asked every year by the ministry to justify her numbers.

Superintendent Wendy Hyer said her district is simply better and quicker at identifying troubled students than others are.

At her previous posting in Merritt, a psychologist had to be hired on a short-term contract, which meant waits of up to two years for a designation, Hyer said, a lag that’s closer to two months in this district, which has four such experts on staff.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert said any financial incentive for districts to over-designate is limited by two factors related to underfunding: a lack of experts and tightening of criteria.

“It’s not something the ministry likes to see, these designations, in our view,” Lambert said.

“And then once (students) are designated, there aren’t sufficient support systems in place to provide supports for those students.”

A foster parent in a different South Okanagan school district said a boy came to her in 2011 with an “intensive” designation, and, “with a little stability we were able to get him off that list.”

But other than an individual education plan, the designation “just put him in a separate, segregated class,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her and the boy’s safety.

There also seemed to be a reluctance on the teacher’s part to have the boy’s designation lifted in order to protect the additional funding source, said the foster parent.

“The teacher herself wanted to keep him on because she wanted the numbers for her program.”

Butters said that as of this week, the total number of kids in her district with behaviour designations stood at 241, down from 308 in September 2008.

All told, the district tentatively expects to receive a total of  about $5.6 million in supplemental funding for special education next year, which would equal about 10 per cent of its total operating budget.