Zero Tolerance in Ontario Schools … Extremist or Justifiable?

The public knows Bill 212, or the School Safety Act as Zero Tolerance, however the Bill itself does not mention the term zero tolerance anywhere in its legislation, nor was it meant to be used in an extreme manner. It was introduced in Ontario by the Ministry of Education in 2000 in response to the growing concerns of educators, students and families about incidents of bullying, violence, threatening and other criminal acts committed at both the elementary and secondary school levels.

The SSA’s premise was that the Ministry was cracking down on children with severely dysfunctional behaviours at school, particularly those who were victimizing educators and peers. The Bill gave educators rights they had not previously held:

  1. Administrators had the right to expel students
  2. Teachers had the right to suspend students for one day

The first year Bill 212 was enacted very few school boards saw an increase in student suspensions, however between 2002 – 2003 suspensions grew exponentially with a 7.2% increase province wide. There were cases when suspensions and expulsions were enacted for the slightest of reasons, making a mockery of the Bill and hence evoking the label zero tolerance. Generally however most schools in Ontario used the Bill as a reaction to harmful student behaviours such as bringing illegal weapons to school, threatening students with a weapon, physical and sexual assaults and so on. video: zero tolerance in schools

One unfair aspect of the Bill however was that some schools had only a very slight increase in suspensions while others increased suspensions in significant numbers. Usually this was due to a school’s location: rural schools did not suspend as frequently as urban schools and urban schools in needy communities experienced significantly more suspensions than urban schools in upscale neighbourhoods. In response to these imbalances the Ontario Human Rights Commission conducted informal interviews with a number of students and parents, one social worker, one lawyer and one teacher. What they discovered was that in addition to the difference in suspension stats between rural and urban schools, more black students than white students were being suspended, and children with behavioural disorders including those on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for these disorders were frequent targets of suspensions and expulsions. video: what was the problem with zero tolerance?

The Liberal government conducted a 5-year review of the Bill as recommended by the previous government and along with the OHRC report, they amended the Bill in an attempt to eradicate these issues. Mitigating Factors were introduced in 2005 and they were to be investigated and applied to all cases of student suspension and expulsion. Mitigating Factors included:

  1. if the student comprehended the long term consequences of her/his actions
  2. if the student comphrended the damages caused by her/his actions
  3. if the student was on an IEP for behaviour
  4. if the student was under significant duress eg, divorce or death in the family
  5. if the student was remorseful and made an attempt to right the wrong she/he had caused

and a number of other considerations. However MFs did not excuse intolerable student behaviour, nor did they always result in an alternative to suspension or expulsion. video: e-safety in schools

The extreme application of Bill 212 emphasized administrators’ differences in how the Bill was meant to be applied. However it also dealt harshly with students whose behaviour was unacceptable in a public school. Above all, victims’ rights were considered first and foremost which was the original intent of Bill 212. Is isuspension and expulsion extremist in cases of one incident of student misbehavior? It depends on the student’s actions. One school I knew of when I was still teaching in the elementary panel experienced a very distressing incident that involved what a student’s parents perceived as zero tolerance. A male student beat up his girlfriend on school premises. The administrator had him expelled but his parents appeal to the OHRC who had the boy instated into the same school as the victim. On his first day back at school the male student located the victim and beat her up again. Zero tolerance? I fail to see why the OHRC was successful in returning this student to school. Quite frankly I have never regarded OHRC with respect since that case, and for other reasons. OHRC is an extremist group, as are many human rights groups worldwide and this case is a strong argument as to why their legal power must be monitored closely by other associations, and by government. video: first grader with camping utensils suspended

In Ontario, Zero Tolerance appears to be a thing of the past, but issues dealing with student safety are an ongoing concern in both the elementary and secondary panels. The Federal Election has begun in Canada yet none of the government parties campaigning for the majority of seats in the House have even mentioned the SSA. Sweeping these issues under the rug however is not going to eliminate them.  Safe Schools and Zero Tolerance: Policy Program and Practice in Ontario

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