A one-size-fits-all tory-prescribed Safe Schools Act was supposed to keep over 2 million Ontario students out of harm's way. But now, five years and thousands of suspensions later - 26,000 this year in Toronto - many are wondering who exactly the controversial legislation is actually protecting.
With the McGuinty government recently announcing an audit of classroom safety under the act, some educators want to know: will this include a review of the most controversial part of the legislation - zero tolerance?
For a long time, those in the field have suspected this hardline strategy of being less a breakthrough than a burden when it comes to altering the educational climate and supporting high-risk kids. And now there's evidence that the law aimed at minimizing violence and disruptions in Ontario classrooms has a disturbing racial subtext.
That's the view of an Ontario Human Rights Commission report released last year, which concludes that the act has a disproportionately negative impact on black youth. It's also the conclusion NOW came to recently after poring over Toronto district school board suspension data.
Yes, Mr. Minister of Ed, a re-evaluation of this suspension-happy Tory leftover is much in order.
*** For mostly well-intentioned reasons, the school board doesn't publicly release stats that have racial implications. Moreover, the board says getting each school to post its suspension rates is a work in progress. But shouldn't some consistent information be available? Despite the sparse data, NOW was able to identify a worrisome pattern pointing to the possibility that black youth are too often over-pegged as suspension material. Among the city's 102 high schools, only 30 provide suspension numbers, sometimes expressed as percentages and sometimes as raw numbers, and sometimes counting total incidents of suspensions rather than numbers of students suspended. By comparing the stats (in some cases tabulating percentages based on 2004 school populations, the only ones available), NOW has learned that seven of the nine schools with the highest suspension rates in 2002-03 also have large black student populations. (We determined the school profile by interviewing trustees and principals.)
These high-suspension schools - Kipling, Westview, Bendale, York Humber, Downsview and C. W. Jeffreys - are mainly in Etobicoke and North York. At C. W. Jeffreys, for example, the suspension rate was 24.4 per cent, compared to 18.7 per cent for the city overall. At Westview, 46.8 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds were suspended in 2002-03.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission took another approach to examining the issue. It gathered stats through interviews with lawyers who represented black students during expulsion hearings, and by talking to school counsellors, trustees and students. Researchers discovered that at least 80 per cent of students at hearings were members of visible minorities, the vast majority of them black. They also identified an over-representation of disabled youth.
"No one disagrees that schools should be safe and free of violence, but from a human rights perspective a number of concerns have been raised about the Safe Schools Act and school board policies," the OHRC report says.
OHRC senior communications officer Afroze Edwards says, "The commission's primary concern is the discriminatory effect of the act's application, not the act per se. There are emerging issues, and there needs to be more awareness of them."
Her concerns are similar to those of parents, particularly in the Jane and Finch area, where some wonder if zero tolerance isn't just an excuse to ignore the learning needs of their children.
York West school trustee Stephnie Payne says she's been getting a steady stream of calls from parents "mainly of African heritage" whose kids have either been suspended or expelled.
"We know [the board] has stats based on race," she says. "It collects them with the suspension report, but it just doesn't release them to the public. From what I've read, it's all about one perception: male, black."
At a mid-January forum held at Brookview Middle School in Jane-Finch by the Caring Village, a group of community members discussed the high number of dropouts, expulsions and suspensions in the area and came to the conclusion that the solution is more funding and resources.
"When you have a community where there is a high amount of poverty and unemployment and many newcomers," says Almaz Reda, spokesperson for the organization, "people are falling through the cracks. The system is not really supporting the students."
Jamal Clarke is one of those students who believe Safe Schools is a copout allowing teachers and principals to power-trip on students. Clarke, a recent high school grad, remembers a play-fight on school grounds in grade 10 that got him booted for assault under the zero tolerance policy. But he returned to school, became valedictorian and made it to York U. "They made me look like a criminal," he says. "Teachers were abusing the power of the Safe Schools Act. The principal kicked out [a whole group of students] at one time. It was an entire wipeout."
Of the 26,000 suspensions last year, 93 per cent were for five days or less. The act imposes mandatory expulsions (21 days to a year or beyond) for students caught carrying weapons, injuring or sexually assaulting someone, trafficking in drugs or committing a robbery. Suspensions are mandatory (up to 20 days) for such offences as uttering a threat, possession of alcohol or illegal drugs or swearing at a teacher. They're discretionary for misbehaviour like "opposing authority" or engaging in activities "injurious to the learning environment of others."
It's the latter wide-net categories that make observers particularly nervous. The formulations appear to give teachers maximum personal sway in deciding on one-day suspensions - and no one can rule out the possibility that those at the front of the classroom aren't indulging their own cultural biases.
Says Don Valley East trustee Michael Coteau, who helped form youth skills programs last summer at 20 at-risk schools across the city - what might be construed as "threatening" a teacher could just be "a student saying something like 'Just watch me,' so I think there may be a cultural element attached. Kids feel they're being put into a box, and their frustration can manifest that into to a suspension."
Are teachers now genuinely so afraid of their charges that they need the power to make a student disappear? Are classrooms scarier, or did the Tories (who wanted to "create a crisis" in education, remember) succeed in using zero tolerance to generate panic?
At York West MPP Mario Sergio's office, assistant Mercedes Zanon says teachers really are nervous in the presence of at-risk kids. "There are teachers who care about the students, but they feel scared. More than they want smaller class sizes, people want to feel safe. Everyone has to feel 'This is my community. '"
Interestingly, that's not the problem identified by Doug Jolliffe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, District 12. Instead, he questions whether suspensions undercut the goal of getting kids to bond with their education. "We're trying to keep generally at-risk students in school so they can get an education, so they become less at-risk," and not discard them at every opportunity, he says.
A better solution both for preventing violence and helping individual students, according to Joliffe, is more funding for hall monitors and support staff. "They say kids are getting worse, but they're not. At the school I was in we had a lot of at-risk students, but we also had a lot of support staff. Now that's gone."
But TDSB superintendent Verna Lister says cash does flow where its needed. The board, she says, has identified Jane-Finch along with Malvern and the former Rexdale communities as areas with unique needs so they can receive additional staff.
She also says the suspension rate at Jane and Finch is "not that different from that of other communities with the same socio-economic factors," and that expulsions are down significantly from three years ago. It's a point also made by Kipling principal Roger Dale, who says his school's suspension rate has drastically dropped since 2002, from 125 to seven.
Still, some kind of pattern is entrenched. Will the ministry-backed audit have the fortitude to deal with it? The minister's office is far from reassuring. Amanda Alvaro, assistant to Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, says the review will examine schools' physical and social safety. "I imagine some [race] issues will be touched upon, but I can't say for certain."