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II. Background

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In Ontario, the first serious steps towards taking a zero tolerance approach to discipline matters in schools began in the mid-1990s. In late 1993, the Scarborough Board of Education adopted a Safe Schools Policy on Violence and Weapons, which appears to have been the first official zero tolerance policy in the province. Within a few months, Black parents and community groups were publicly expressing concern that the policy was having a disproportionate impact on Black students.[20]

In 1995, the federal Solicitor General released the first major study in Canada on the issue, School Violence and the Zero Tolerance Alternative, which collected information and opinions from police, teachers, school officials, youth, the general public and the print media. The report found “a good deal of support for zero tolerance policies” and suggested nine principles to guide police and schools.[21] Despite longstanding evidence that zero tolerance policies were having a disproportionate impact on Black students and students with disabilities in the United States, and well-publicized allegations that the Scarborough policy was having a similar impact on Black students, the author of the report failed to include this issue as part of his research. It appears, however, that some of the participants in the research did address it because one of the recommendations states: “Students must be held accountable for their actions and recognize that their misbehaviour is a result of conscious choices, not the result of disadvantage, discrimination and the like.”[22] [Emphasis added]

In the lead-up to the 1999 provincial election in Ontario, the Progressive Conservative Party platform promised a “zero tolerance policy for bad behaviour” in schools.[23] The promise began to take shape in April 2000 when Education Minister Janet Ecker released a Code of Conduct for Ontario schools. A Ministry of Education news release stated that the Code “would make expulsions and suspensions mandatory for serious infractions like bringing weapons or illegal drugs to school, and sets out a zero tolerance policy for bad behaviour.”[24] One month later, the Minister introduced the Safe Schools Act, which proposed amending the Education Act to give force to the Code of Conduct and provide principals and teachers with more authority to suspend and expel students.[25] The Act was passed by the legislature in June 2000[26] and came into effect in September 2001.[27]

A review of the House debates on the Safe Schools Act in the Ontario legislature shows that there was some debate about the potential impact on student with disabilities.[28] What is remarkable, however, is that it appears that there was no debate about the potential impact on racial minority students. Similarly, while the Ministry of Education did consult with some advocacy groups and mental health agencies on the potential impact of the Safe Schools Act and Regulations on students with disabilities,[29] it appears that there was very little, if any, consultation about the potential impact on racial minority students.[30]

The House debates also show that Ecker explicitly promised that the government would ensure that suspended and expelled students have access to alternative programs:

Our consultations over the past two years have told us that people not only want consistent standards and respect and responsibility back into the classroom, but they also want supports for students who have been expelled or suspended. We certainly agree. Sending these kids out on the street only puts the problem somewhere else and actually creates additional problems, not only for those students but also for the community.... Parents and guardians... want to see appropriate programs for students who have been suspended, because suspended students can often fall further behind in their schooling. If passed, Bill 81 would give us the authority to make sure that all school boards are providing the structures and supports for suspended students so that they can keep their heads in their books, correct their behaviour and stay out of further trouble. Some school boards in Ontario already offer different kinds of programs for suspended students, where they can keep up with their studies and gain valuable life skills, such as anger management and conflict resolution. But we want to make sure that we have the best programs and that every school board is in a position to offer them for suspended students and also for expelled students.[31]

School boards in Ontario began amending and adding to their safe schools policies even before the Safe Schools Act came into effect. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), for example, had already adopted a Safe Schools Foundation Statement Policy with a “zero tolerance” component,[32] a Police-School Protocol[33] and a Safe Arrivals for Elementary Schools Policy.[34]


[20] Paul Irish, “Probe of Black legal issues slams school violence policy,” Toronto Star, 20 March 1994.
[21] Thomas Gabor, School Violence and the Zero Tolerance Alternative (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1995), p. 4. See Appendix I, Tab 47.
[22] The Acknowledgements gives special thanks to a number of people, mostly police and education officials, including Bob Heath from the Scarborough Board of Education. Ibid. at 1.
[23]Blueprint: Mike Harris’ Plan to Keep Ontario on the Right Track (Toronto: Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, April 1999), 42.
[24] Ontario Ministry of Education, News Release, “Ontario releases Code of Conduct and takes action for safer schools,” 26 April 2000.
[25] Ontario Ministry of Education, News Release, “Ecker introduces Safe Schools Act,” 31 May 2000.
[26] Ontario Ministry of Education, News Release, “Legislature passes Safe Schools Act,” 14 June 2000.
[27] Ontario Ministry of Education, News Release, “Province moves forward with safe schools strategy,” 3 September 2001.
[28] Ontario, Legislative Assembly, Ontario Debates (Hansard), Session 37:1, 6 June 2000 at: http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardeissue/37-1/l067b.htm; Ontario, Legislative Assembly, Ontario Debates (Hansard), Session 37:1, 8 June 2000 at: http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardeissue/37-1/l069.htm.
[29] The executive director of an organization that serves people with Tourette Syndrome attended a meeting at the Ministry of Education with 10-12 agencies that work on disability and child behavioural issues, but said that “I wasted my afternoon because not a word I said was taken into consideration.” Supra note 19, 14 May 2003, at 4. The executive director of a children’s mental health centre attended a consultation with an association of mental health agencies, but said that it “was called a consultation, but it was not. They knew what they wanted to do and they were going to do it regardless of what we said.” Interview, 10 April 2003, 3-4.
[30] The chair of an organization of parents of Black children stated: “[T]here was no consultation.... I am not aware of any members of my community having any impact on the Safe Schools Act.” Interview, 22 April 2003, 4. A lawyer at a legal clinic serving the Black community stated: “The potential impact was raised by the initiative of community groups.” Supra note 13 at 3. The coordinator of a Tamil youth centre stated: “We had an outreach worker who might have given some input.” Supra note 17 at 6.
[31]Ontario Debates (Hansard), 6 June 2000, supra note 28.
[32] Adopted 23 June 1999, revised 3 May 2000, 3. See Appendix I, Tab 22.
[33] Adopted 3 May 2000.
[34] Adopted 5 September 2000.

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