Going back to school in September can bring up varying emotions. Some kids are excited to see old friends, some are anxious about meeting new ones, and others are mortified by giant zits that mysteriously arrived at the end of summer. Fifteen-year-old Gregory Tailor is neither excited nor anxious about school. He won't be starting school with his peers, because he's in hiding from the police after being named as a suspect in the fatal shooting August 30 of another teenager at Jane and Sheppard.
I don't remember lots of guns and knives at high school in the early 70s. Lots of drugs. Lots of tragically stupid behaviour. There were a few neanderthal bullies, but no one was really scared to come to school - perhaps nauseous, but with little worry about personal safety.
Now we've entered the era of the Safe Schools Act, in which school officials are empowered to act swiftly and sternly to remove any student who appears to step out of line.
When I hear all this talk about youth violence and high school battlegrounds, I can understand why lawmakers believe they should try to legislate school safety. But I still wonder who's taking responsibility for the moral development of young people.
Too many 15-year-olds strut around with weapons, and there's nothing that the Safe Schools Act, a variation on the criminal justice policy of "zero tolerance," can do about this.
The act has produced thousands of expulsions over the past five years, which is just sweeping the problem under the carpet. "Out of sight, out of mind" is not an effective policy for dealing with troubled teens.
This policy is tired and hackneyed. Lacking tolerance is nothing more than lacking patience and the political will to deal with complex behavioural problems.
Perhaps adult criminals may be lost causes in terms of reformation, but with young people it's counterproductive to view the emergence of anti-social conduct as a justification for exclusion, expulsion and punishment. It's better seen as an opportunity for intervention.
Whether in school administration or criminal justice, zero tolerance policies are a complete dead end. If there is any hope of reducing violence in our society, we must work closely with troubled adolescents. But it's hard to do this when the official response is expulsion or incarceration.
Last year the Ontario Divisional Court upheld an Ottawa school principal's decision to suspend a seven-year-old boy who brought a 28-centimetre letter opener for show and tell. He told the class the letter opener was something "soldiers use to kill people with."
When a young kid's imagination drifts to violence, he may have a problem or may just have been watching American soldiers on the news. Either way, responding with official banishment achieves nothing.
In fact, it dramatizes the situation, labels the child and potentially instills a first taste of hatred of authority. By not dealing with the situation directly in the school environment through counselling and compassion, we may turn this seven-year-old into a gun-toting 15-year-old on the run.
School officials lack the will to get their hands dirty. From their perspective, the moral development of a young person is primarily a parental responsibility. Many parents do a fine job, but many do not, and many are unable to see pyschopathy growing within their child.
Jeffrey Dahmer's mother supported her murderous son even though his fridge was filled with the body parts of victims and not her homemade chicken soup.
When parents fail to instill moral character, schools should be the next best place to teach right and wrong. Schools have a unique opportunity since kids are required by law to be a captive audience until they're 16. There's no reason why they shouldn't take classes in the ethics of everyday life. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important but do little to nurture the capacity to make good moral choices.
School administrators could learn a lesson from the establishment of Youth Justice Committee programs sprinkled across the province last year.
Basically, the programs divert minor youth offenders from the formal criminal justice system into a community-based tribunal. The tribunal has authority to order reparative or restorative measures such as community service, restitution and participation in counselling programs.
It makes sense to treat the young shoplifter or vandal as someone who can learn from a mistake. The label of "criminal" is overkill and can trigger a self-perpetuating cycle whereby we often end up manufacturing criminals by overdramatizing the evil of immature crime.
It's important to draw distinctions between the misguided and the budding sociopath, because when you lump these two groups together in a formal and impersonal justice system, there is a tendency for the sociopaths to infect the others.
I like the idea of restorative justice with young people, and in a school setting this can only occur when the student remains a member of the community. A dialogue cannot be established when the student is in exile.
There will be occasions when a student is so disruptive and dangerous that he/she must be suspended or expelled. But the cold logic of the Safe Schools Act leads to many premature banishments without any consideration of a restorative approach to the problem.
I believe there's only a small handful of truly evil and dangerous people in our society.
Most of us sit ambivalently on the edge, with the capacity to do both good and evil depending upon the circumstances we confront.
Surely, in the 10 years in which young people are stuck in school, the education system could do more to provide them with the tools to make good moral choices.
Even a fiercely independent young person is somewhat malleable if approached with care and compassion. If educators would take time to consider ethics and everyday morality as important as calculus and grammar, we might start producing a new generation of political leaders who would actually do something about another primary causal contributor to budding criminality: the poverty in which far too many Toronto households live.
Alan Young is a law professor at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week.