Nova Scotia family feels betrayed after private school expels son with autism

A Wolfville, N.S., couple says they paid $22,000 in tuition to Landmark East only to have their son spend a big chunk of time at home on suspension, before being expelled for behavioural problems.

Landmark East went to 'heroic lengths' before deciding 11-year-old must leave, headmaster says

Greg Richardson, shown with his wife, Lisa, and their son, Adam, says it's difficult to find a school that can help Adam, who has autism. (Submitted by Greg Richardson)

Greg Richardson describes his 11-year-old son who has autism as "smart" and "high functioning."

But Adam's tendency to lash out at others when he perceives he is being ridiculed has earned him suspensions from public school.

Richardson and his wife Lisa thought Landmark East, a private school in Wolfville, N.S., for children with learning disabilities, might be the answer. They hoped the school would help Adam learn and also help him cope with his sometimes violent behaviour.

That didn't happen.

The Richardsons paid Landmark East's $22,000 annual tuition but Adam still spent large chunks of time at home on suspension beginning last November. 

He was expelled on Thursday, almost two months before the end of the school year.

"It was about behaviour and the safety of other students," Peter Coll, headmaster at Landmark East, told CBC's Mainstreet Halifax. "I can't get into specific details about disciplinary cases because of confidentiality rules. I can talk about the fact that it is absolutely a last resort for us to ever remove a student from the school."

Landmark East School in Wolfville, N.S., said it expelled Adam Richardson, 11, on Thursday "as a last resort." (Google)

"We go to heroic lengths before that situation presents itself," Coll added. 

Richardson acknowledges his son has struck other students. He said the most recent incident, which he described as "swatting" another boy on the head, was probably the last straw.

"Ironically, it's a kid he plays with a lot, that he is friends with, who he plays with on the weekend, whose parents we know," Richardson told Mainstreet.

He said the two made up later that day.

"The school is saying he is being expelled for what they call violent behaviour. The behaviour is part of Adam's autism spectrum disorder," he said. 

Richardson said he and Lisa requested that staff deal with the boy's behaviour at the time it occurred, rather than punishing him after the fact.

Speaking to a child with autism about behaviour after it has occurred and suspending the child doesn't work, he said. 

"It is something we presented to the school at the beginning. It is something we've been dealing with. It is part of who he is and part of his struggles in education," Richardson said.

"We assumed that is what we were paying for."

Greg Richardson says he paid $22,000 for one year's tuition at Landmark East but Adam only spent a few hours at school a day because of suspensions.

"Adam now feels really bad about himself" and refers to himself as "stupid" and "a problem," Richardson said.

"What is the answer and where should Adam go? I don't know. We need help."

Coll said Landmark East familiarizes itself with each student's learning abilities, including behaviour triggers.

"We did everything we were asked to do in the situation and more," Coll said. 

Some tuition reimbursement

Richardson said he'd like to be reimbursed for part of the tuition because the school's strategy for dealing with Adam's negative behaviour wasn't effective.

"To compensate us for the two months tuition for when Adam is not attending, May and June this year, to help soften the blow of expulsion and allow us to use that money for other mental health resources," he said. 

But Coll said the contract signed by the Richardsons clearly stated tuition cannot be refunded.

"I am sorry if the family is making it about money. We worked really hard to make it about helping this child. We're a non-profit charity and we're only in business to help kids," he said.

The Richardsons moved to Wolfville so their son could attend Landmark East. They are now considering enrolling him in a local elementary school.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet