On June 26, 2006, the Ontario government released a report of the Safe Schools Action Team entitled Safe Schools Policy and Practice: An Agenda for Action (the "Report"). Under the leadership of Liz Sandals, Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Government Services, the Safe Schools Action Team (the "Action Team") was directed by the Ontario government to conduct a review of the Safe Schools Act, as well as its regulations, related policies and administrative practices. The Report summarizes the results of that review, which was conducted through public consultation, with input from approximately 700 parents, educators, students, and other community members across Ontario, and written submissions from various organizations, school boards, and individuals.
In the Report, the Action Team identifies the following eight themes for priority action:
2. Progressive Discipline;
3. Community and Parental Involvement;
4. Application of the Safe Schools Act;
5. Programs for Suspended/Expelled Students;
6. Education and Training;
7. Communication; and
8. The Provincial Safe Schools Framework.
In addition to reviewing the concerns of Ontarians, the Report also sets out various successful practices around the Province and provides recommendations to the Ministry of Education (the "Ministry"), school boards, local school, and the community in respect of the above themes.
The Report recognizes the importance of preventative strategies that will, among other things, lead to systemic change, help students make sound personal decisions, and deter inappropriate behaviours. In addition to adopting inclusive preventative and early intervention strategies, the Action Team recommends that school boards implement empowerment programs that focus on aspects such as healthy lifestyles and relationships, student leadership, conflict resolution, restorative justice, bullying prevention, and peer mediation. Another recommendation is the development of individual safety plans for students with special needs who could be a danger to themselves or others.
2. Progressive Discipline
The Report stresses that disciplinary measures should be applied within a framework that focuses on the supportive and corrective aspects rather than the punitive aspects of discipline. The Report acknowledges that parents are an integral part of this process and in this regard should be actively engaged.
The Action Team also recognizes the importance of considering mitigating factors in determining the appropriate disciplinary approach, as well as understanding the intent of legislation, polices and regulations, and ensuring that they are applied in a consistent and equitable manner. To that end, the Report recommends that the Ministry provide direction to school boards in regards to progressive discipline, and other identified areas where clarification is needed.
In addition, the Report recommends that school boards should ensure that all members of the school community, particularly students and parents, have access to, understand, and support the progressive discipline approach. Other recommendations include the development of policies to support and protect students who have been bullied or affected by violence; and the creation of in-school disciplinary alternatives, where expulsions are used as a last resort.
3. Community and Parental Involvement
The third priority action focuses on community and parental involvement and the importance of establishing better coordination among the Ministry, school boards, local schools, and community organizations.
The Report recommends the establishment of a Safe Schools Advisory Committees to reflect the views of teachers, parents, students and the community. Another recommendation is that all stakeholders review and coordinate early identification, treatment and supports for students with mental health needs, including those in Educational Programs for Pupils in Government Approved Care and/or Treatment, Custody and Correctional Facilities.
4. Application of the Safe Schools Act
Regarding the application of the Safe Schools Act, the Action Team reiterated the importance of a thorough and consistent process for investigating all incidents, and the need to consider mitigating factors. The Report recommends that the Ministry revise the Safe Schools Act to expand the list of mitigating factors. With respect to suspensions, the Action Team recommends that only principals/vice principals should have the authority to suspend students. Finally, schools should consider having students serve one-day suspensions in school.
Regarding expulsions, the Report recommends that the Safe Schools Act should be revised to have only one kind of expulsion, which only school boards could impose. Further, for all expulsions, a school board should offer an appropriate alternative program to a student, which must be completed before readmission to a school.
5. Programs for Suspended/Expelled Students
The Action Team noted that continuous learning for suspended and expelled students, and the availability of resources, such as learning and treatment programs, behavioural management, and individual counselling were among the key concerns raised by Ontarians. The Action Team’s recommendations included reintegration strategies for all expelled students, for those on long-term suspension, as well as students in Educational Programs for Pupils in Government Approved Care and/or Treatment, Custody and Correctional Facilities. In addition, the Report recommends that the Ministry review the strict discipline programs to assess the extent to which programs are meeting the needs of students and supporting their successful re-entry into schools.
6. Education and Training
Three recommendations with respect to education and training are noteworthy:
- The Ministry should provide training and resource materials on the application and procedures regarding the Safe Schools Act and related policies.
- The Ministry and school boards should provide training for all staff in schools on: cultural awareness; the benefits of diversity; the needs of students experiencing mental health challenges; the needs of students protected by the Child and Family Services Act; students with special needs; and students who experience violence at home.
- Boards should provide ongoing training for all school staff and students on the application and procedures regarding the Safe Schools Act, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and board and local school policies; for teachers and administrators on mitigating factors and the school’s incident investigation process to ensure that all students are treated fairly; and for all staff in schools on behavioural management of students.
The Action Team found that more information should be shared by local schools and school boards with parents, students and the school community about the Safe Schools Act, the Ontario Schools Code of Conduct, and related board and school policies, processes and appeals. Further, the language used to communicate the Code of Conduct and the Safe Schools Act must be accessible and culturally sensitive. The Report also recommends that school board and local schools provide more complete information to parents on student behaviour and progress, prevention, and intervention strategies and programs.
8. The Provincial Safe Schools Framework
The Action Team found that creating and maintaining positive and safe school environments requires that all stakeholders understand the Safe Schools Act and the policies related to it. In addition to referencing other legislation that relate to the overall framework for safe schools, the Report also states that consideration should be given to developing new policies or guidelines. For example, consideration could be given to developing a provincial policy for the use of physical restraints for students with special needs.
The Report also recommends that the Ministry and school boards review the police/school board protocols with respect to alignment with the language and concepts in the Youth Criminal Justice Act, communication protocols, information collection and sharing, and effective practices on how to build positive relationships among all members of the school, community and the police.
The McGuinty government has committed to studying the Action Team’s recommendations this summer and developing a response for the fall of 2006. In our view, it is likely that the Ontario government will propose amendments to the safe schools provisions in the Education Act during this school year.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.