Former students of church-run school decry lack of mental health supports

Former students of a qualified independent school (QIS) outside Saskatoon say there was a lack of mental health supports at their school.

Cody Hamilton and Janeesa Shirley claim to have both been suicidal during their time at Prairie Christian Academy (PCA), adding that disorders such as ADHD were never identified.

Read more: Quality of education criticized by former students of church-run school near Saskatoon

Shirley said she suffered from mental health disorders, and that this was something that she says should have been picked up on while she was in school.

“I struggled hard with a learning disability, and it wasn’t until I was 30 until I figured out that I have these, but they didn’t want to focus on anything like that because in their realm, there was no such thing,” Shirley alleged.

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“I was officially diagnosed with ADHD, BPD – borderline personality disorder, which is a huge thing.”

Hamilton noted he also has ADHD.

“It made it difficult because I didn’t even know I had it until I was an adult because, you know, it was the church beliefs that mental illnesses were kind of demons that you brought upon yourself, and that could be prayed away,” Hamilton claimed.

Shirley attended PCA from 1996 to 2004, when the school wasn’t receiving provincial government funding.

Hamilton attended from 2000 to 2014.

PCA is listed as a QIS, and according to the province’s public accounts, received $2,688,231 between 2012 and 2020.

Read more: Former student says government-funded church school staff said being gay was wrong

Regina Public Schools says on its website that it offers supports for students, noting that there are programs for students with a range of disorders.

“Educational psychologists, school social workers, speech-language pathologists, consultants, program specialists and assistants are employed by the Board of Education to provide their expertise. Programs exist for students with mental and/or physical challenges, students with learning disabilities, students with behavioural disorders and at-risk youth,” reads the website.

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Shawn Davidson, the president for the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said programs are being developed to further help children facing mental health issues.

“The ministry put in place a mental health first aid program, which is along the same sort of lines as physical first aid for. And we now have at least one staff member trained in, I believe it’s every school in the province now that’s trained in mental health first aid,” Davidson said.

This program began last year and aims to help kids facing a range of hurdles.

“They can be, you know, gender identity, they can be physical disability, they can be, you know, being of a minority group. It doesn’t matter what our students bring to the table. Our school’s goal is to be inclusive and welcoming for them in every capacity. And that’s something that we take very seriously as the publicly funded system,” Davidson added.

John McGettigan, president of the Saskatoon Teacher’s Association, says public schools have resources to pull from if needed.

“It could be a learning disability, it could be a mental health issue, but there’s a robust structure of professionals that have expertise around that,” McGettigan said.

“The infrastructure around the children in our schools is tied to legislation. It’s tied to regulation. It’s tied to well over 100 years of ensuring that we do our best to help kids learn and keep them safe.”

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“Teaching children is always, always, always about what’s next for them and making sure that they’re in a position that they can achieve their dreams and their goals,” McGettigan said.

Hamilton claimed that the church and school worked closely together, and claimed that dealing with a mental health issue in PCA involved praying during his time at the school until 2014.

It is unclear what PCA does currently to support students with mental health concerns.

Read more: Saskatoon Christian school textbook raises curriculum concerns at legislature

“They didn’t believe that depression was just a chemical imbalance of the brain. It was someone did something to bring this demon into their life that could just be prayed away,” Hamilton alleged.

Hamilton graduated from PCA in 2014 and claimed that he was outed as being gay to the principal at the time, Rene Boutin.

“Principal of the school who is also the reverend of the church. Rene Boutin,” Hamilton claimed.

Rene Boutin was listed as the Director for PCA, and a bio from August that was later removed from the PCA website said he was previously a teacher and principal at the school.

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“One of the teachers did go to the university for like an English teaching degree, but everyone, even like the principal, as far as I understand, no education, had no certificate, had no formal piece of paper to say that they should be a teacher,” Hamilton claimed.

Global News has not been able to verify Hamilton’s claims.

Before removing its staff directory on its website, PCA listed its staff online in August and outlined what grades they oversaw.

The Saskatchewan Professional Teachers Regulatory Board (SPTRB) public registry doesn’t keep records of teacher accreditation from 2014 but going through the PCA staff listed in August this year and placing their names through the registry, two names out of the nine instructors were listed.

Global News reached out to Rene Boutin, Amber Boutin, the principal of PCA, and the leaders of Faith Alive Family Church, Barb and Brent Rudoski for a response multiple times, but instead received an email from “Directors of Faith Alive Ministries”, which runs PCA. It stated “Our counsel has instructed us to remind you we are a Christian, faith-based school entitled by law and under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to teach our students love of God out of a theological, anthropological, and moral perspective derived exclusively from what we sincerely hold as Biblical truth. That is what we do. That is what we have always done.”

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Global News reached out to Minister of Education Dustin Duncan for an interview with a list of questions and received a lengthy statement from the Ministry of Education.

Regarding teacher accreditation, the Ministry stated “All (QIS) must also follow applicable criteria. All QIS are required to comply with a strict set of criteria to receive funding of 50 per cent of the provincial per-student average.”

“These criteria include, but are not limited to, only employing teachers with a Professional ‘A’ teaching certificate regulated by Saskatchewan Professional Teachers Regulatory Board (SPTRB), providing approved courses of study in accordance with provincial curriculum policy, agreeing to be supervised by ministry officials, and complying with all ministry policies and directives. The ministry does confirm teachers’ and principals’ status with the SPTRB,” read the statement.

“QIS are required to have one Professional A teacher per 40 students and each student in the school must be assigned to one of the Professional A teachers. The school may employ other staff and Professional A teachers in non-teaching roles, such as educational assistants or teaching assistants, however these employees must be under the supervision of the SPTRB registered teacher,” stated the government response.

“Having additional roles in classrooms is a regular practice across the province in public and separate schools, and independent schools. Starting in 2022-23 all qualified independent schools are required to provide records of supervision by a Professional A SPTRB teacher of any non-professional teaching staff,” read the statement.

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Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Board Association, said education should be led by certified teachers.

“They’re the professionals. They’re the ones that are educated in the delivery of curriculum to students. They’re the ones that have got both the educational and experiential background to do the job,” Davidson said.

“Within the Education Act and our publicly-funded system, it is required that the teachers deliver programs.”

Davidson noted that he would like to have a conversation with the provincial government, adding that he doesn’t see a clear policy at the ministry or government level around independent schools.

“One of the things that becomes a real risk is that, and we’ve seen this in several jurisdictions, the United States would be a really good example of that, where these private or semi-private schools do erode the quality of the public system,” Davidson said.

– With files from Global News’ Nathaniel Dove

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