It wasn't long after Lincoln started kindergarten that the suspensions started.
First it was for swearing, then for taking all his classmates' bags off the hooks, and the third time he was shown the door was when he overturned the tables in the classroom.
After that, the eight-year-old boy - who has since been diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with a question mark around oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) - started absconding from class, replacing fight with flight as a way to escape a situation he found he couldn't endure.
I want to go a lot further and claim discrimination but who has the time and resources to do that?
Lincoln's mum Larissa Arnold is one of eight local parents of children with a social-emotional or sensory disability who spoke with the Illawarra Mercury about the toll that multiple suspensions had taken on their family.
Overall, they believed their schools were not equipped with the resources to support children with these disabilities, or the capacity to respond to incidents in a way that de-escalates a situation.
All but one said their public school routinely dealt with their child's challenging behaviours - almost always an involuntary response when they are feeling overwhelmed - by punishing and excluding them.
"They would just instantly suspend him for three to five days and not fix the problem," Ms Arnold said.
The Wollongong mother, who had to give up a lucrative career to be home to look after her son for days at a time, enrolled him at a new school where he was placed in a support unit, only for the situation to worsen.
"I moved him to a school that I believed had support and then he kept getting suspended there, so I think he's spent more time at home than he has at school."
She has since fought for Lincoln to return to mainstream class at his original school but remains angry about the sheer number of school days her child has been denied for behaviour that is a result of his disorder and he has little control over.
"He's behind in school now and we have to look at getting him a tutor," Ms Arnold said.
"I want to go a lot further and claim discrimination but who has the time and resources to do that?
"It's hard enough the fight I go through weekly with the school with him, and you're just constantly up against the wall because they're understaffed themselves, they're under-resourced.
"It just ruins families, and it ruins the children when they suspend straightaway because they don't want to deal with it.
"It's a really hard time I think for any special needs kids - these kids are suffering."
Other parents relayed similar stories, which you can read in the interactive below.
On top of suspensions, many said their children were regularly sent home early, which meant three of the parents were unable to hold down a job, while another mum was recently scolded by her boss for constantly having to leave work early to collect her son at varying times of the day.
One of the mothers said her boy was not allowed to attend excursions or incursions without a parent or carer present, and that she was recently asked to bring along a non-uniform shirt to Symbio so that she could change him into it if he had a meltdown. That way, he wouldn't be associated with the school group.
Data shows they're not alone
Figures obtained by the Mercury under Freedom of Information access show a clear majority of students suspended from Illawarra primary schools are excluded for disobedience or aggressive behaviour, and a large percentage of these students are registered as having social-emotional and sensory disabilities.
While the numbers are heavily redacted, in semester one of 2019 there were at least 306 suspensions. Of these, 129 were recorded as having a disability, or just over 42 per cent.
With private schools under no obligation to take children with disabilities and often not realistic for low-income families, public schools are their only option.
The over-representation of children with a disability diagnosis or additional needs in suspension figures is well known by the NSW Department of Education.
In a bid to tackle the inequity, it has rolled out two new policies and procedures - the Inclusive Education Policy for students with disability and Student Behaviour Policy - in term four this year in all NSW public schools.
"The new policy makes it clear that principals are required to take a student's background and additional needs into consideration when making a decision to suspend a student, and reduces the maximum length of suspensions," a department spokesperson said.
But so far no additional funding has been given to schools to help support the new policies and procedures.
The spokesperson said next year public NSW schools were set to receive more than $348 million to support students who have additional needs, which would fund almost 2000 learning and support teachers and "a flexible funding allocation to every school".
NSW Teachers Federation Illawarra organiser Duncan McDonald said the union saw significant deficiencies and problems with the policy and was still seeking to have improvements made.
"We're trying to slow down and polish what is currently in draft form," he said.
"There needs to be that take-up time and that complementary professional learning built in so that the policy can come in and support kids successfully.
"And if anything's going to be successful, you want the additional resourcing to already be in place."
Mr McDonald said teachers were as frustrated as parents with the lack of resources to help teachers manage challenging behaviour in the classroom.
"When it comes to teachers, they're often the next significant person in the lives of a lot of primary students after their parents, so it's a shared concern and a shared frustration too," he said.
"There's a whole variety of additional resources that should be rolled out when it comes to behaviour policy and procedures, but unfortunately it has had chronic under-funding for years and years."
Schools bucking trend to suspend
Some primary schools in the Illawarra have been able to reverse the suspension trend for children with a disability by providing inclusive and engaging spaces for them.
Megan* said she has been lucky enough to find one of them for her child at her local school, Cringila Public.
Her nine-year-old son has multiple diagnoses and has never been suspended in the four years he's been at the school.
"He can get aggressive, he can send classrooms into lockdown; when he is in one of those moments he is actually extremely difficult to deal with," she said.
"The way the school handles those situations is amazing. I have friends with children who have very similar behaviours and they are constantly suspended.
"My son's school's approach is about positive behaviour support and they're constantly looking for solutions rather than to just suspend the child as they realise it doesn't help.
"They have a real understanding of not addressing the situation when it's in motion, they'll address it after the fact. But there's never any of those negative things, they're trying to change the behaviour, not the child."
Christine*, an Illawarra educator with 30 years' experience, said schools that prioritised trauma-informed practice, a tamed teacher ego, real engagement and a focus on wellbeing and connection would see an immediate reduction in suspensions.
While she would like to see the significant issues facing teachers given urgent attention, she said it was no excuse for schools not to provide fairly for all children.
"Yes, teachers should be paid more and shouldn't have such a huge workload - but at the same time, they need to remember why they're there," Christine said.
"It's to empower young people to be able to function in society and so ... we need to do things to work towards that. You're trying to empower each child, not just the easy ones - especially not just the easy ones."
Ms Arnold has noticed some significant improvements in her son's situation since the new policies took effect earlier this term, which she attributes to a teacher who has been less reactive to his behaviour.
"His new teacher and the aide in the room respond to Lincoln differently - they don't react," she said.
"Like he made a comment last week because he was testing and he wanted to see the reaction he got but they didn't react.
"He made a similar statement in the past and he was reported to the department as a serious concern and they ripped him out of class and sent him home."
Ms Arnold said if the new policy is going to live up to its inclusive name, NSW schools could no longer apply a one-rule-fits-all approach to behaviour management.
"They say serious language is grounds for suspension, but for some kids with autism, a lot of their way of communicating when they're at a point when they don't know how to communicate is they swear, so then they get suspended straightaway."
*Not their real names.
In Saturday's Mercury: The Illawarra primary schools that haven't suspended a student in four years.
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