I. Introduction

The main purpose of this report is to examine whether the Ontario Safe Schools Act and Regulations and the school board policies on discipline, known by some as “zero tolerance” policies, are having a disproportionate impact on racial minority students and students with disabilities. Since September 2001, when the Act came into effect, school boards around the province have been drafting and implementing policies and procedures to comply with the Act.

The Toronto Star recently reported that in the 2001-2002 school year, there were 113,000 suspensions and expulsions from schools in Ontario, including 24,238 suspensions and limited expulsions and just under 100 full expulsions issued by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).[1] Although there is disagreement over how much of an increase this is compared to the previous school year,[2] everyone agrees that there has been an increase and the public perception is that the increase is substantial.

One of the strongest indicators of this is the unprecedented level of organizing, particularly in low-income communities, to support suspended and expelled students. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), at least three community-based initiatives have sprung up in the last year.[3] In addition, several community legal clinics, in response to a sudden increase in demand, are now providing summary advice and representing students in suspension and expulsion matters.[4] Finally, community meetings on the impact of zero tolerance policies are now being held on a regular basis. In the first two weeks of June 2003, for example, at least two such meetings were held in the GTA.[5]

Although initial media reports focused on absurdities such as the criminal prosecution of a high school student who threw a water balloon at his teacher on the last day of school,[6] the more recent focus has been on the impact on Black students. In November 2002, CBC Radio broadcast an in-depth story which presented evidence and opinions that a disproportionate number of Black students were being suspended and expelled in Toronto.[7] For unspecified reasons, the Ministry of Education refused to record an interview with the CBC for this story. This was followed by an article in the Toronto Star in March 2003 with essentially the same thesis.[8]

This report starts by looking at background information; the regulatory framework for applying discipline in schools in Ontario; the system set up by the Toronto District School Board; and information on practices and impact in other jurisdictions, including the United States, Britain and Nova Scotia. It then presents findings from independent research conducted in Ontario, including a relatively recent study on perceptions of racial minority students and a Ministry of Education draft monograph with guidelines on disability and the application of discipline. Finally, it puts forward findings from interviews with forty-three individuals, among them lawyers, school board trustees, teachers, principals, students, youth leaders, community workers, youth workers, academics, policy analysts, consultants, social workers, school board superintendents, medical experts, and journalists, who are knowledgeable about school discipline and the impact of discipline policies on racial minority students or students with disabilities. The research focused primarily on the Toronto District School Board, but also looked at the Toronto Catholic District School Board and school boards in other parts of Ontario.

The author of this report faced several barriers in his attempts to gather evidence from official sources. First, although some statistics appeared in a recent Toronto Star article, it was difficult to get access to the precise number of students who have been suspended and expelled since the Safe Schools Act came into effect. Both the Ministry of Education and school board officials in the GTA failed to provide statistics upon request. Second, the Ministry of Education and school boards do not collect statistics on the race of the students being suspended and expelled and are resistant to looking into the possibility that the application of discipline may have a disproportionate impact on racial minority students. Statistics on the number of students with exceptionalities who are being suspended is being collected, but the information is not yet accessible to members of the public. Third, requests to see or interview staff at alternative programs, which provide services to suspended and expelled students, were refused.

The official resistance in Ontario, particularly on the issue of school discipline and race, is clearly out-of-step with other jurisdictions that have diverse student bodies. In both the United States and Britain, official statistics are collected on the race of suspended and expelled students and there is an open discussion about the disproportionate impact on racial minority students. Furthermore, the Progressive Conservative government in Nova Scotia considered adopting a zero tolerance policy in the education system at about the same time as the Ontario government, but unlike the latter, it directly addressed the possibility that such a policy may have a disproportionate impact on racial minority students.

Advocates of zero tolerance argue that the policies are colour blind and fair because all the students who commit the same offence will be treated the same.[9] Opponents point to other jurisdictions where there is data showing that suspensions and expulsions have a disproportionate impact on Black and other racial minority students and students with disabilities.

This reports finds that in the GTA and other parts of Ontario there is a strong perception, which is supported by some independent evidence, that the Safe Schools Act and school board policies are having a disproportionate impact on racial minority students, particularly Black students, and students with disabilities. Some of the anecdotes told by the interviewees exemplify this:[10]

  • Two Black female students were suspended for possessing weapons after they brought nail files to school.[11]
  • A Black male student who was accused of stealing money was handcuffed by the police and led out of the school in front of other students, even though the alleged offence (theft) was non-violent.[12]
  • A 14-year-old Black student with an intellectual disability was suspended after a teacher was hit by an object in a darkened classroom during the showing of a film. He was questioned by the vice-principal for one and a half hours without his parents being present. The police were called, but he was not charged because of a lack of evidence. He took a lie detector test and passed it. Nevertheless, the school expelled him for almost three months.[13]
  • An Iraqi student was suspended for three days after a note with profanities that was signed “Iraq” was found. He was the only Iraqi student in the school. He knew, in fact, that one of his friends had written the note. The student and his father offered to show the vice-principal proof that the handwriting in the note did not match his handwriting, but the vice-principal said that the decision had already been made.[14]
  • Five students – two Aboriginal and three White – were caught taking drugs together. The two Aboriginal students were suspended for five days, one of the White students was suspended for three days and the other two White students were not suspended at all. The school told the parents of the Aboriginal students that the two White students were not suspended because they came forward first.[15]
  • A Vietnamese student was suspended after a White student complained to a teacher that the Vietnamese student had threatened him. The Vietnamese student said that the White student had been bullying him. The teacher believed the White student and alleged that the Vietnamese student and his older brother were part of a gang. The student and his older brother – who went to a different school and had never met the teacher – both denied the allegation. After the student retained legal counsel, the superintendent and principal backtracked and said that there had been a misunderstanding due to language issues.[16]
  • A Tamil student, who had an overall average of about 90%, was suspended and threatened with expulsion on the basis that he had falsified his marks for university entrance. The grade for one course on the student’s transcript had been changed from 79% to 80%. The student claimed that his girlfriend had picked up his transcript and changed the grade without his knowledge. The school administrators told the student’s father that his son’s education was over. After a community organization applied pressure, including asking for the police to be brought in, the school decided to limit the student’s suspension to five days.[17]
  • A student with autism, who communicates by pulling hair, scratching, biting or kicking when he becomes frustrated, was suspended and then excluded from school for his behaviour. The student’s behaviour is managed at home through a special program, but the school board has maintained that it would be too costly to establish a similar program at school. As of April 2003, the student had been out of school, and not received any education, for six months.[18]
  • Several students who are recognized as having Tourette Syndrome with coprolalia, the vocal tic that results in the uttering of profanity, have been suspended for swearing in class. In those cases, the principals decided that the swearing was willful and had nothing to do with the syndrome.[19]

[1] Tess Kalinowski, “Does getting tough work?” Toronto Star, 18 March 2003. The author of the present report tried to confirm these statistics with the Ministry of Education, but was told that the precise numbers for the whole province are still being compiled and will not be available until the end of the year.
[2] Kalinowski, ibid. estimated that there was a 40% increase in suspensions and expulsions over the previous year at the TDSB. Two senior officials at different school boards in the GTA both argue that the new and old regimes are so different, and the collection of data so different (the new databases are more precise and accurate), that comparing numbers is very difficult. However, they both acknowledge that there has been an increase. Interview, 14 May 2003, 1-2; Interview, 16 May 2003, 1.
[3] A partnership of organizations led by the Muslim Education Network has established the Community Initiative for Suspended Students in the Morningside-Lawrence area of Scarborough and expects to start running a program to support suspended students from junior kindergarten to grade six in September 2003. Community groups and educators in Regent Park have put forward a Proposal to Establish the Regent Park Program to Prevent Suspension and Support Suspended Kids. Promoting Economic Action and Community Health (PEACH) is running a Wraparound project to assist at-risk youth in the Jane-Finch community in partnership with the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Conflict Mediation Services of Downsview, the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, Oolagen Community Services, the Organization of Parents of Black Children, Pro-Bono Law Ontario, Westview Centennial Secondary School and the Toronto District School Board.
[4] See Part VII, below.
[5] On 10 June 2003 Pro-Bono Law Ontario held a TeamChild – Wraparound Lawyers Training Session at the Advocates’ Society. On 11 June 2003 the Toronto Civic Action Network in partnership with the Rexdale Cross Cultural Committee and Rexdale Youth Advocates held a Community Town Hall Meeting at the Rexdale Community Health Centre on Education: The Effects of Zero Tolerance and Funding Cuts on Young People.
[6] Eli Schuster, “Zero tolerance equals zero judgment,” Report, 10 September 2001.
[7] “The Colour of Zero Tolerance,” The Current, CBC Radio One, 20 November 2002. The full transcript of this story can be found at Appendix I, Tab 2.
[8]Supra note 1.
[9]Supra note 6.
[10] The anecdotes are hearsay and the principals and teachers involved were not interviewed.
[11] Interview, 9 April 2003, 2.
[12] Interview, 25 March 2003, 2.
[13] Interview, 3 March and 15 May 2003, 1.
[14] Interview, 21 March 2003, 8.
[15] Interview, 20 May 2003, 1.
[16] Interview, 4 April 2003, 1-2.
[17] Interview, 15 May 2003, 3-4.
[18] Interview, 8 April 2003, 3-4.
[19] Interview, 14 May 2003, 2; Interview, 13 May 2003, 2.