The following post originally appeared on the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic blog. Special thanks to both Alex Battick and the clinic for allowing us to share this post.
By Alex Battick
He was disruptive, rude and in many instances verbally or physically abusive in the classroom. Liked by many, but often times chastised by teachers and staff, it is likely that we have all encountered a similar archetype. I knew a kid like this in middle school, who would very regularly get in trouble. One day, in particular, I remember him arguing with our English teacher. This argument was more notable because the last words I heard him say before he left school that day was to her face: he called her a B****.
What an idiot, I remember thinking.
Unsurprisingly, he was suspended. What was surprising to me, however, is years later learning how difficult of a childhood he had, and how rough his home life at the time must have been. In retrospect, after learning, working and experiencing more aspects of the education system, I have come to believe that he was let down by an institution that found it easier at the time to punish than to strive officiously to ensure he succeeded.
A broken system
It’s easy to say that my friend was in the wrong, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. But stories like my childhood schoolmate aren’t uncommon, and for good reason. All children aren’t born or created equal, making it challenging for many to enjoy a positive experience in the current school framework. This inequity leads to disciplinary practices that on the surface, seem justified, but upon deeper analysis appears to do much more harm than good. In 2013-2014, there were over 55,000 students suspended and over 400 were expelled.
This school year, Ontario schools are likely to follow the same trend.
These figures are comparatively low from a decade ago, due to the introduction of the Safe Schools Act created by the Ontario government to address the systemic challenges faced by many students. It gave individual schools more autonomy and discretion in determining whether a student should be suspended or expelled. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these policies have not achieved a suitable level of justice.
The story of Winston Karam is an example of the danger of these disciplinary practices and how unfettered power from school boards have its dangers. The story of Karam shows how disciplinary practices are sometimes blatantly wrong, yet schools can be blind to this.
In other instances, you will find it is more common that those with disabilities face contextual challenges when facing disciplinary measures. In fact, it is established knowledge that vulnerable populations of students in schools face higher rates of suspensions and expulsions; minority groups such as the racialized and disabled face social barriers to success and in many instances have factors pushing them towards antisocial behaviours. What is even more frightful, is the expert evidence that makes it increasingly clear that these disciplinary measures put children at an increased risk for poorer life outcomes. Yet, many public schools persist in using suspensions as a standard practice for responding to students’ problematic behaviors even though suspensions are largely ineffective in their goal of deterring youths’ inappropriate behaviors; can negatively impact their well-being, health, and academic achievement; and are associated with entry into the juvenile justice system.
The school laws in Ontario have evolved to follow a much more progressive approach that recognizes a one punishment fit all system is not effective. However, there is not enough oversight in place to ensure all suspensions/expulsions are completely justified; not when the access to justice is nowhere near the standard it should be.
Equality before the law
While students (under 18) do not have a right to appeal their suspension or expulsion, parents do. But parents do not always have the resources to fight school disciplinary practices on their own. Contacting a lawyer becomes necessary for some who would otherwise be unsuccessful in their efforts. But herein lies the biggest threat to students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are punished using these disciplinary practices. The inability for many to effectively participate in proceedings is an undiscussed topic in Ontario.
Parents/guardians are not required to appeal the decisions made by the school, and when they do, many do not have the resources necessary to create compelling, effective and successful arguments. In fact, many families do not have the knowledge surrounding suspensions and expulsions to respond appropriately. Many others face barriers in the form of time and money.
Canada currently does not recognize a constitutional right to legal aid, however, and access to lawyers who are able to provide pro bono assistance is small in scope. This is arguably the most detrimental effect families face when fighting a school’s decision to suspend or expel. Without appropriate resources to challenge a school board’s decision, many families face an uphill battle.
It should be apparent that this is unjust, especially considering the significant effects of these disciplinary practices. The failure to participate effectively in such a discussion may be a violation of a student’s Human Rights. Canada signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, acknowledging Article 7’s recognition that all are equal before the law. But reality often is not reflective of such convictions; for families lacking social, political and economic capital, equality before the law seems more like an ideal than truth. Even for seemingly inconsequential, mundane and straightforward events like a school suspension, access to justice is a right that should be preserved.
An under-used resource
Ontario has a strong commitment to increasing the access of justice among its population, however, resources are limited when it comes to public funds for legal aid. Even pro bono societies across Canada have scarce resources, and lawyers willing to help, still need to make a living. However, a program in London, England, found a solution to counter this shared social problem: law students.
The School Exclusions Project uses law students to advocate for parents of excluded children. There is a poetic justice in having students advocate for students. The need for greater oversight and more protection for students in elementary to high school demands more resources to prevent detrimental outcomes for children, and this may be the most viable option if we are to increase the access to justice for parents and suspended/expelled students.
The education system is one of the most progressive institutions in our society. But for this same reason, we must continue to push for higher standards. Doctors appreciate and acknowledge statistics that simply show, there’s a percentage of the population that may not be receptive to their intervention. But this is not a bottom line for them; they continue to treat patients in hope that they will be receptive. Likewise, there will always be students who must justifiably be suspended or expelled. However, this should not prevent an active search for justice in all cases.
Alex Battick graduated from McMaster University in Sociology and is just completing a second degree from City University London England. He has been a volunteer at the Clinic since 2012.