It may be called the Safe Schools Act, but Mayor David Miller argues that the bill the Ontario Tories passed five years ago to impose standards of student behaviour on a financially crippled public education system is actually contributing to the rise of gang violence in Toronto. And he wants the legislation repealed.
"It should be called the Unsafe Neighbourhoods Act or the Gang Recruitment Act," the mayor says of the controversial law that established a code of conduct for students and gave school authorities the power to suspend or expel them for violations - many of them minor.
"It takes students who are a discipline problem and throws them out of school," Miller says. "So you have kids who are most likely to get in trouble out on the streets where the gangs are recruiting. It's wrong-headed and counterproductive to the kind of city we're trying to build. More kids get involved in gangs. More kids get involved in gun violence. More kids get involved in crime."
The mayor says he's received strong support for abolishing the act from residents of some communities hit by this summer's deadly outbreak of gunplay.
He plans to raise the matter with members of the Liberal government when he meets with them at Queen's Park later this month.
But Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, the MPP for Miller's old Parkdale-High Park riding, isn't predicting a quick end to the legislation he raised serious objections to when he was in the opposition.
"We will improve on it," Kennedy says, "but getting rid of it is not a conclusion we have arrived at at least not so far." He still blasts the former Conservative administration's Bill 81 as an "incomplete thought" that did little more than "banish the kids to the shopping malls" while stripping schools of the funds needed for preventative programs.
But the minister adds, "It's not as if we'll get rid of [the act] and suddenly things will get better."
Still, Kennedy says his ministry is getting ready to initiate a review of the Safe Schools Act (complete with public hearings) with an eye to making improvements to the legislation as soon as possible.
"We accept that there are problems, but we haven't jumped to conclusions about why," he says. "We're going to get to the bottom of what is possible for us to do while still maintaining safety in the schools."
The minister is confident he can bring forward recommendations for change by the end of the year.
"The act should be amended, or a whole layer of additional supports and programming [should be] added to it," says Bruce Davis, a trustee with the public school board.
Davis agrees there should be clear consequences for students who bring weapons, drugs or alcohol to school, cause damage to school property, swear at teachers or threaten them and other students with bodily injury.
But he adds, "We haven't done the kinds of supportive things that would make whatever the policy is work better." The trustee also notes that some groups feel the act is coming down harder on their kids than others.
"Are the rules being interpreted unfairly?" he asks. "Is there some kind of systemic racism or classism built into how the rules are being applied?"
According to Davis, a task force set up by the public board last year suggests the answer to both of those questions is yes.
* * *
Fans of political pugilism are abuzz over the possibility of two Toronto councillors duking it out to succeed Alvin Curling, Canada's new ambassador to the Dominican Republic, as the Liberal MPP for Scarborough-Rouge River. The fact that Bas Balkissoon (Ward 41) and Raymond Cho (Ward 42) can't stand the sight of each other just heightens the excitement.
Alas, the big fight may never happen. Word in Grit circles is that party brass have their eye on another candidate for the by-election that Premier Dalton McGuinty is expected to called for later this fall. Well-placed Liberal sources describe Roz Roach as a "very articulate, well-spoken black woman" who is currently running a Scarborough women's shelter.
"She has real presence," says one party insider. Roach is also said to have the support of Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, a backroom powerhouse who will definitely have considerable influence on who gets to carry the Liberal flag into a battle the governing party is virtually assured of winning.