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Safe Schools By Decree: The Ministry Micromanages Caring

By Dudley Paul

Kids need to feel safe in school. And no matter what your perspective on education or the Ministry that runs it in this province, there won’t be much disagreement about the fact that adults who work in schools have a responsibility to do something when students don’t feel safe. Behavior like bullying, slurs against groups, harassment, and violence of any kind must be confronted.

This is made plain enough in a 2008 report by the Safe Schools Action Team: Shaping A Culture of Respect In Our Schools: Promoting Safe and Healthy Schools. The Team makes dozens of recommendations about what to include in the curriculum, how to respond to students who harass or hurt others, what information to provide teachers as well as the school system, linking with others in the community who can help and the necessity for school staff who work with students to intervene when this sort of behavior takes place.

Never one to miss an opportunity to micromanage education, the McGuinty government picked up on just the last point, legislating that all school staff from caretakers to itinerant psychologists report to the principal any behavior that could lead to suspension they observe on or off school property “where it has a negative impact on school climate.” This is sketched out in the Ministry of Education’s accompanying handbook: “Keeping Our Kids Safe At School,” that provides minimal direction about amendments to the Education Act arising from Bill 157. These changes took effect on February 1.

It is like using a hammer to turn a screw. Not wanting to leave it to school boards to do what they do anyway: raise concerns about specific discipline problems and deal with these through principals and school staffs, the Ministry has chosen once again, to legislate the minutiae that comprises common sense. Though unclear how this might be enforced, the legislation empowers the Minister to apply the same rules in future to non-board staff.

It also enables principals to delegate their authority to teachers whether accepted voluntarily or not. This opens various cans of worms including violating collective agreements, teacher liability, questions about how to exercise authority and so on.

But for now, vice principals, teachers, education assistants, non-teaching staff such as psychologists, social workers, child and youth workers, secretaries, caretakers and school bus drivers, though the latter don’t necessarily work for a school board, must report the following suspension-worthy behaviors to the principal who in some unspecified way will document and address them:

  • Uttering a threat to inflict serious bodily harm on another person
  • Possessing alcohol or illegal drugs
  • Being under the influence of alcohol
  • Swearing at a teacher or at another person in a position of authority
  • Committing an act of vandalism that causes extensive damage to school property
    at the pupil’s school or to property located on the premises of the pupil’s school
  • Bullying
  • Any other activities identified in school board policy

Included in this list are these offences that could lead to a student being expelled from school:

  • Possessing a weapon
  • Using a weapon to cause or to threaten bodily harm to another person
  • Committing physical assault on another person that causes bodily harm requiring
    treatment by a medical practitioner
  • Committing sexual assault
  • Trafficking in weapons or in illegal drugs
  • Committing robbery
  • Giving alcohol to a minor
  • Any other activities identified in school board policy.

Also according to the handbook, staff members who work directly with students must address these behaviors, unless it could cause them physical harm, by identifying and asking students to stop the behavior in question after they have explained why it is inappropriate. Who knew?

Since staff may face disciplinary sanctions by their school boards or the College of Teachers, if they don’t report these behaviors it stands to reason that they will do so without messy references to judgement – just like that handbook says. Some of the more absurd situations that come to mind may not have been envisioned by legislators who apparently don’t spend that much time around schools. Will primary teachers for example, report incidents of grade 1 or 2 students losing their tempers and threatening to maim their peers over a lost ball or some such other slight – something that occurs frequently during a recess? Is a student in a resource room going to be reported for losing her temper and swearing at a teacher who, given special circumstances judges that this calls for discretion? Is every act of bullying, whatever that might entail, across all age levels to be reported? Incidents that are relatively minor in the minds of kind and judicious staff members have just become way more complicated.

There are serious implications for other school board staff who must now report incidents. Psychologists and Social Workers need to maintain confidentiality when working with students. If every suspension-worthy action or remark is up for report, this doesn’t bode well for the trust and rapport that supports their relationships. How will they meet conflicting obligations to their clients and their bosses? Caretakers and school bus drivers are now being asked to take on responsibility completely outside their job descriptions or face sanctions. Whose job will it be to explain to their unions and professional associations how their members should cope with yet another job that could impair their ability to perform the one for which they were hired? I suspect that once again school boards will be picking up after the Ministry’s legislative spree.

Clearly, the Ministry of Education thinks schools are staffed by idiots who require every facet of their jobs to be spelled out. The pity of this legislation is that it takes a normal human exchange – adults seeing kids doing something they shouldn’t and telling someone in charge – and binds it so tightly to regulation and sanction that any common sense of engagement or civic responsibility is drained. Instead, staff must look over their shoulders in hopes that they haven’t broken a rule, rather than acting from any sense that they are part of the community.

This human capital approach pervades education, as we have seen most recently in the rules set out for trustees: people working in schools are like any other process or tool and so must be continuously directed and subject to sanction if, God forbid, they vary from prescribed strictures. From this perspective, apparently anyone should be able to work with kids – as long as they have at hand the required compedium of relevant legislation.

If the Ministry really wants to ensure that students are free from harassment, bullying and other threats, it could try communicating with schools and boards. It might find out that the problems it seeks to bludgeon out of the way are varied and complex and call for people to think rather than consult their guidebooks. It might learn that doing something as simple as restoring caretakers to schools would make them cleaner and feel safer while putting more adult eyes in the buildings, something that by itself can dissuade kids from making the wrong choices.

But that would force the McGuinty Government to address how it funds Ontario schools now languishing near the bottom of the heap in North America. Better for the Liberals to distract us from that by legislating everything in sight.


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