School for Autistic Children Near Haifa ‘Unfit’ for Students

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Kiryat Yam, December 22, 2012.Credit: Ilan Assayag

A school building that began operating in a Haifa suburb five years ago as a temporary solution for children on the autism spectrum is totally unfit even for regular students, much less those with special needs, parents charge.

The Kiryat Yam building had never served as a school before and wasn’t refitted to make it suitable.

Parents say Zlil Yam’s current home is in terrible condition, with unstable walls that seem likely to collapse, a sewage system that emits a horrible stench and frequent power outages that terrify the students, who, like many special-needs children, are very sensitive to disruptions in their normal routine.

Minutes of a 2013 meeting of staffers from the Education Ministry’s special education division reveal that the ministry also considers the building unfit to serve as a school. It ordered the municipality to at least not place any additional children there, but since then, the school has acquired about 20 new students.

The current building was supposed to be used just until the Kiryat Yam municipality had prepared a proper building to house the Zlil Yam school.

But five years on, 54 autistic children are there from Sunday to Friday.

Shalom Saban, whose 11-year-old son studies there, said the building is freezing cold. But when one teacher tried to bring in an extra heater, it overloaded the ancient wiring system, causing a blackout.

The school, he said, initially lacked “even the most minimal necessary equipment,” such as shower stalls, which special-ed schools are supposed to have because some children aren’t toilet trained.

“The assistant teachers would wipe their bottoms with wet wipes in the corridors,” Saban said. “But the moment we threatened an article was about to be published, a budget was found and they built shower stalls.”

“The teachers and parents bought construction paper with their own money, and brought in used toys,” he added. “We collected donations.”

Michal, whose 8-year-old son attends Zlil Yam, said much necessary equipment is still lacking. For instance, there are only five pieces of playground equipment.

“These aren’t children who play group games, so the staff, however much it wants to and tries, has nothing with which to occupy them” during the 40-minute recess, she said.

In addition, there aren’t enough classrooms. “My son is in second grade with children who are kindergarten age,” Michal said. And the occupational therapy clinic is in an open-roofed gym, “so if it rains, there’s no occupational therapy,” she added.

Parents also fear the building contains asbestos. This concern arose after technicians who came to install air conditioning said they couldn’t drill, because it would be dangerous.

The municipality sent an inspector who said everything was fine, “but that didn’t reassure us,” Michal said — especially since it subsequently sent someone to paint the walls “and said ‘There’s asbestos, but they’ve painted, so it’s okay; it won’t crumble.’”

The municipality has denied that there are asbestos on the walls.

Saban said the ministry allocated 1.5 million shekels ($383,000) to renovate the building slated to become the school’s permanent home.

Mayor David Even Zur “promised that this year he’d transfer the children, but it didn’t happen,” Saban added.

At a meeting with Education Ministry and municipal officials in July, parents were told that renovation of the new building would start soon and be completed during the current school year.

Students are at Zlil Yam from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Sunday through Thursday and until noon on Fridays.

“You have to understand that autistic students spend most of their waking hours at school,” explained attorney Ziv Magor of ALUT, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children. “This is the framework that’s supposed to care for them until age 21, to teach them how to cope ... The current framework, the building and the whole compound, doesn’t respect either the students or the teachers.”

The Education Ministry, which refused to let Haaretz enter the school, said the current building is temporary and that the municipality is now working to adapt the new building for the students’ needs.

The municipality said that while other local authorities don’t want schools for autistic children in their town, Kiryat Yam had explicitly requested Zlil Yam’s establishment. To that end, it allocated “one of the best buildings at its disposal, in one of the city’s most prestigious neighborhoods,” for the school’s permanent home, “and the work of adapting this site to the students’ special needs is currently being completed.”

The city acknowledged that the temporary building “isn’t perfect,” but said it was “constantly doing everything in its power to provide the students and staff with the best possible conditions and resources.”

The municipality also blamed the delayed renovation of the new building on the Education Ministry, which it said didn’t transfer the promised funds on time.

“All the parents whose children study at the site were aware of conditions at the temporary school and know the delay in the move depends solely on the Education Ministry,” the city said. “We regret that some parties are disseminating crude, baseless lies, like the delusional claim that the walls contain asbestos panels.”

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