Racism and education | Marvin Zuker
Friday, July 17, 2020 @ 3:18 PM | By Marvin Zuker
Not much appears to have changed during the past 40 years. (On a personal note I vividly recall a court case involving the late civil rights lawyer Charles Roach in 1980 who successfully sued the police for stopping him across from his oﬃce in Toronto simply because he was Black.) Race is not only not deﬁned in our education legislation, the word is virtually non-existent.
There is perhaps no greater need than now to put our minds to how our schools address suspensions and expulsions, and the consequences that accompany these actions. Much has been written about how exclusionary discipline contributes to a school-to-prison pipeline.
On July 6, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced in part that he will introduce a ban on suspending children from junior kindergarten to Grade 3. Is this restricted to out of school suspensions? What about behaviour that would otherwise be a crime if the child was 12 years of age?
As bad as traditional suspensions are, in-school suspensions may not be much better. Having a pupil sent to sit in a room with someone who is there just to babysit them and not address the root of the problem is next to ridiculous. This may be where legislating restorative justice as an alternative form of discipline would be appropriate.
It is interesting to note that in the United States, the state of California is the only jurisdiction that “almost” bans suspensions unconditionally to Grade 3. “Students in K-3 may not be suspended.” (Cal. Educ. Code #48900, 48903).
Why stop at Grade 3? Why not Grade 6 or Grade 8 with exceptions?
Banning suspensions until Grade 3 would in no way resolve the obvious racial disproportion of school discipline.
How tragically and slowly we have come in more than 30 years since the days of the infamous principal Joe Clark and the movie Lean on Me in 1989. One of Clark’s colleagues was quoted as saying “If his students were not poor Black children, Joe Clark would not be tolerated.”
Zero tolerance policies of any kind must end. Mitigating factors to be considered do not go far enough. I do agree that students who may lack the understanding that what they have done constitutes conduct that is prohibited should not necessarily be punished.
Addressing racism in our schools must also include the formal end of corporal punishment. When will we fully appreciate the dignity of our children and end such demeaning behaviour? (And its historical connection to race cannot be contradicted.)
If Black Lives Matter then we must end School Resource Oﬃcers (SROs) in our schools. Many commentators have identiﬁed the SRO’s role in the disproportionate criminalization of students of colour. SROs have played a major part in the punitive pipeline that has had a signiﬁcant overrepresentation of Black students.
Punitive law enforcement has come at the expense of what should have been the SRO intended functions of teaching and mentoring.
Finally, although there is never ﬁnality, the use of seclusion and restraints on our children must be legislatively spelled out and restricted. We must have provincewide guidelines, not local board ad hoc policies. There must not be physical restraint, any kind of restraint, unless it is a case of immediate danger and less restrictive interventions are ineﬀective. Time-out seclusion rooms must be a last resort.
Justice and dignity must include everyone.
Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.
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