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N.L. school board spent $682K fighting human rights complaint by 5-year-old deaf child

The parents of Carter Churchill — a deaf child who was discriminated against by the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District — are disgusted by the amount spent on legal fees to fight their case.

Todd and Kimberly Churchill filed an access-to-information request with the school board following their win at the province’s human rights tribunal in March. They discovered the district had spent $681,917 on legal fees to oppose the family’s complaints dating back to 2017, when Carter was in kindergarten.

In the end, the human rights commission ruled the district violated Carter’s human rights by not offering him an education in American sign language and ordered the school board to pay an additional $150,000 to the Churchill family.

“I think it’s completely disgusting, because the Department of Education will say there’s no money for teachers, no money for supports, no money for children with exceptionalities,” said Todd Churchill. “But yet there’s money, almost three-quarters of a million dollars … to defend the discrimination of a five-year-old deaf child in a wheelchair.”

Carter — who is now 12 years old — has cerebral palsy and is deaf. He uses American Sign Language to communicate.

A blonde woman standing next to a grey-haired man. She's wearing a black T-shirt that says Deaf Children Matter. He's wearing a navy blue windbreaker over a royal blue buttom-up shirt.
Kim and Todd Churchill spent $93,000 to fight their son’s case. They won in the end, but are still out thousands of dollars. (Katie Breen/CBC)

He was a student at Beachy Cove Elementary in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s for four years, while he was in kindergarten through Grade 3. During that time, he was assigned teachers who didn’t know ASL and had no training in teaching deaf children.

The family said the school was “dismissive” of their concerns and repeatedly said he was receiving a quality education, despite being in an environment where he could not communicate. They were afraid for his well-being, they said, and he was socially isolated because he was unable to communicate with his peers and teachers.

In 2020, Carter transferred to East Point Elementary in St. John’s. The school developed a program for deaf students to learn through ASL.

School board accepted recommendations

When the Churchill family felt they were unable to get a satisfactory response to their complaints through the school district, they turned to the province’s human rights commission in June 2017.

Todd Churchill said the district dragged the process out for five years, making it expensive for the family to keep up the fight. In total, they spent $93,000 to put forward their complaint with a lawyer representing them.

An inquiry was finally held in 2020, with the NLESD represented by law firm Stewart McKelvey. The figures obtained by the Churchill family shows the school district paid more than $493,000 last year to fight the case.

“The extreme lengths the district would go to try and beat my wife and I down, by bleeding us financially, is staggering,” Todd Churchill said.

A month after the human rights commission sided with the family, the school district accepted the findings and agreed to pay the family $150,000 without further appeals.

“The district does accept and fully accept and take responsibility for the systemic issues identified and the missed opportunities early in Carter’s education, and we fully understand that’s what led to the ruling of discrimination,” said district superintendent Terry Hall in a written statement.

“Those missed opportunities resulted in him being socially isolated and impeded his development of social and language skills, furthering a tremendous communications divide during his early years.”

That’s all well and good, says Todd Churchill, but he still feels nobody was held accountable for those mistakes — not the administration at the school, not the decision-makers at the board level, or the bureaucrats in the Department of Education.

About $50,000 of the money awarded to the Churchills was to reimburse legal fees. The rest was awarded directly to Carter, and will be held in trust until he’s older.

Todd Churchill said the process, and the revelation of the amount spent during the process, feels like a warning to the families of children with disabilities.

“You have to suck it up and accept your discrimination or we’ll financially cripple you, because we’ll leverage all the assets of the Newfoundland taxpayer against you,” he said. “I think the Newfoundland taxpayers should be outraged.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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