BY: Simon Collins

Children who die in accidents or suicides before they turn 25 are about 100 times more likely than their peers to have been forced out of school.

The Auckland District Health Board’s child and youth mortality review group has found 43 per cent of young Aucklanders who died between the ages of 10 and 24 from non-medical causes had been stood down from school.

The study dramatises the high stakes of failure in an education system that is struggling to cope with growing numbers of children whose brains are “wired differently” – children with conditions such autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A three-part Herald investigation, which begins today, shows that waiting lists for specialist services have ballooned even though successive Governments have poured more money into them.

Waiting lists more than doubled – from 2145 to 4710 – in a single year up to June last year.

They have reduced since then because of funding increases in the 2017 Budget, but are still much higher than in the years leading up to last year.

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the 2827 students who were suspended by schools last year had received at least one of the ministry’s specialist services.

Children who are suspended or expelled are much more likely to end up in the youth justice system, and later in adult jails – and now the Auckland study suggests they are more likely to pay the ultimate price of an early death.

“A stand-down, suspension or exclusion from school is a red flag for a high risk of adverse outcomes and should be seen as a cry for help,” the authors said.

The study, by the health board’s child and youth mortality review coordinator Sue Peacock and paediatrician Dr Alison Leversha, was preliminary and only a long abstract has been published.

It examined the deaths of 70 young Aucklanders aged 10 to 24 from non-medical causes over three years to 2012, and focused on 53 whose educational history was available.

The main cause of early death in the group was suicide (28 people), followed by road accidents (12), drowning (6), falls (4), alcohol poisoning (2) and inhaling butane gas (1).

A fifth (21 per cent) of the 53 young people whose educational history was available had been suspended, and 17 per cent had been expelled or “excluded” – the term used for children aged below the school leaving age of 16 who are supposed to be taken in by another school after one school fotrces them to leave.

For comparison, only 2.4 per cent of all NZ school children were stood down last year, 0.4 per cent were suspended and 0.16 per cent were excluded or expelled.

That’s about 100 times less than the exclusion rate among those who died early.

Experts are still unsure of the reasons why the numbers of children with “learning differences” appear to be increasing.

United States studies show children on the autism spectrum have more than doubled so far this century from 0.7 per cent to 1.7 per cent, while a NZ study has found that between 5 and 10 per cent of people have “severe difficulties with reading (dyslexia) or concentration/impulse control (ADHD)”.

Although these increases are largely due to better systems of identifying the conditions, some believe there is a real underlying increase in the conditions due to social changes such as children spending more time on screens and less time interacting with real people and with nature.

Whanganui teenager Razeal Bracken-Wall, 15, has been out of the school system most of his life because of learning and behavioural problems which started after he was dragged along the ground in a driveway vehicle incident when he was 18 months old.

His grandmother and main caregiver Maria Jones says he has attended five schools but lasted more than a term or two at only one of them.

“He’s been locked up in cupboards and rolled in mats and put in cardboard boxes and shoved in seclusion rooms,” she says.

“A child in Africa has a better chance of getting access to education than Razeal does.”

Peacock and Leversha proposed “comprehensive health, education and psycho-social assessments” for students stood down, suspended or excluded from specific schools.

Although this has not happened, the Government has published a draft action plan for learning support which includes screening children aged 6 to 8 for dyslexia and dyspraxia, “flexible support packages” for them, and funding 600 learning support coordinators in schools from 2020.

Waiting lists

Early intervention services

June 2014: 1637
June 2015: 1663
June 2016: 1409
June 2017: 2849
June 2018: 2552

Communication service (speech/language therapy)

June 2014: 500
June 2015: 599
June 2016: 497
June 2017: 1155
June 2018: 855

Behaviour services

June 2014: 207
June 2015: 177
June 2016: 187
June 2017: 547
June 2018: 510

Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS)

June 2014: 169
June 2015: 148
June 2016: 52
June 2017: 159
June 2018: 66

Total specialist services

June 2014: 2513
June 2015: 2587
June 2016: 2145
June 2017: 4710
June 2018: 3983

Source: Ministry of Education

Source: NZ Herald

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