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Safe Schools Act and the criminalization of youth in Ontario's schools

Special to Shunpiking Online

(February, 2007) - THE Safe Schools Act was introduced in the year 2000 by the Harris government in Ontario as part of the anti-social offensive that they called "The Common sense Revolution." It was one of a wide range of new laws passed to foster a favourable investment climate for the rich at the expense of people's living standards while criminalizing the consequences of impoverishment and social decay. The aim of the Safe Schools Act was ostensibly to impose a "zero tolerance" policy on violence in schools. It established categories of offensive behaviour that would result in mandatory suspension or expulsion and gave each school board and each local school the right to enact a code of conduct that would add even more restrictions. The new rules have served as a justification for wider surveillance and an increased security guard and police presence in schools in Ontario.

The Safe Schools Act went into effect September 2001 with the McGuinty Liberals showing no signs of making any changes since coming to power in 2003.

The Act has been punitive on students, particularly those of national minority backgrounds, and is a flagrant violation of students' rights.[1]

[The infusion of police and security guards in and around school campus provides an atmosphere of fear and anxiety]

Many teachers, students, parents, activists and members of the community have expressed great concern over the "Law and Order" approach of the Safe Schools Act. The infusion of police and security guards in and around school campus provides an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, especially for students of national minority background and students categorized as "slow learners." The provincial regulations allow police involvement as a protocol between the School Board and the Police.

The Peel District School Board Policies and Regulations clearly outline that each school:

"Shall follow the 'Police and School Response Protocol' as developed cooperatively by the Peel District School Board, Dufferin Peel CDSB, the Peel Regional Police and OPP Caledon detachment."

The other contentious issue of the Safe Schools Act involves what students are expected to wear and not to wear in and around school premises. In fact the Safe Schools Act mandates Boards to develop their own policies with respect to "appropriate dress." The Secondary School Code of Conduct in the Peel Board outlines their dress code as follows:

"... clothing is to be appropriate neat, clean, and in good taste. Clothing which ... identifies a student with gang involvement is prohibited on school property. This includes baseball caps, toques, hoods, bandanas of any colour, black or white stocking, cloth or nylon headgear ..."

[The ID lanyard and dress code policies are provocative towards students and violate their rights]

In addition, it is mandatory that both students and staff wear ID cards in the school. Many students have expressed concern, frustration and anger over these new policies. The presence of police imposes an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the school and is not conducive to a learning environment. The ID lanyard and dress code policies are provocative towards students and violate their rights. Many students wear clothing that is part of their youth identity and culture and do not belong to any gang, yet they are racially profiled and criminalized by school administrators and police. The definition of what constitutes a "gang" is totally arbitrary and used to criminalize the youths' right to be.

In fact there has been a disproportionate number of black and other national minority students suspended from the Toronto School Board under the Safe Schools Act. As a teacher in one Brampton High School said, racial profiling and harassment by administrators and police does take place, however, the safe schools act violates the rights of all youth, irrespective of their origins. Many students do report these incidents to teachers who they can trust. The same teacher provided stories of how police handcuffed students and escorted them out of the office, through the school halls, in front of their peers and into the cruiser in a humiliating manner. The teacher also reported how a student had confided to him that the police had a verbal confrontation with him, and at one point the police officer said, "I'll poke your eyes, till they'll go to the back of your skull." Another educator said that one of his students who is in the basic program in a Brampton high school told him that after having a verbal exchange with the police, the officer said, "I'll put drugs in your pocket and frame you."

This is not the first time that Police in the Peel Board have intimidated youth at a Brampton high school. Three years ago (2003), police were invited by the school administration to discuss their role in the school to grade nine students. The police were quick to suggest that those students who wear bandanas, or baggy pants would be prime suspects and searched, because according to the logic of the police, "baggy pants and bandanas provide a good indication that you may be in a gang." This clearly indicated who was going to be watched closely and targeted. National minority youth and in particular black youth, were clearly told: conform to what "we" deem is acceptable or you are responsible for the consequences.

A great deal is learned about a society based on how it treats its youth. Many educators understand that a society does not have a future if it attacks its youth. The "Safe Schools Act" is a crisis-ridden dictate that is not designed to resolve the social problems that many youth experience.

It fully exposes that the "Law and Order" agenda of the federal and provincial governments is intended to criminalize all those who do not behave in a slavish manner. Many youth come from poor families and single parent homes, are unemployed and experience the lack of funding that is needed in their schools and community. Their anger and marginalization is transferred into the classroom where they may then run into problems with school authorities and the police. Instead of helping the youth with the problems they face, the state and school administrators who are agents of the state, avoid any inquiry as to why a student may become angry towards authority. Instead, the state and school administrators introduce punitive measures, spy and surveillance cameras in the name of having "a safe school" and "assisting" the youth. However, many educators will acknowledge that this process does not solve the problems. They are very concerned about the role they are given to police youth when the needs of the youth are crying out for solutions.

[The question to pose is: why is there a clash between conditions and authority?]

The introduction of the "Safe Schools Act" implies that the problem is the youth and not society or its social relations. It assumes in a very mistaken way that the youth, their emotions, behaviour, attitude, and character are all the source of society's problems today. The state, school administrators and media pundits never ask the question whether there may be a problem in the way society is arranged; that what the youth are experiencing are merely symptoms of a greater problem. The question to pose is: why is there a clash between conditions and authority? Why is the authority not dealing with the conditions in a manner that helps the youth? The existence of violence and insecurity among the youth occurs because of the denial of their rights. Should we not discuss this and other issues in order to resolve the problem? Is this not a more scientific approach to attempting to understand how to deal with the social ills in our society? These questions are not even posed by the authority. Instead legislation increasingly targets students as being the problem, and impedes teachers, parents and the community at large from discussing and solving these social issues. Problems such as youth depression, bullying, and social isolation are all social problems that require social solutions and an authority which as its starting point must respect the rights of the youth. Media coverage which blames the youth for the problems they experience serves to cover up that these problems derive from the social relations that characterize our society so that the youth, their parents and communities are isolated and made the targets of people's fear and anger. Instead of uniting to provide real problems with solutions, people are kept divided and disorganized. So long as they accept this state of affairs, they remain powerless to change the situation.

The "Safe Schools Act" lays the groundwork for students and their parents to accept repression and fascism from the Canadian state, all in the name of having "safe" schools. This is the same logic when introducing the "anti-terrorist" law and "security certificates" based on false pretences to fight "terrorism" abroad and at home. It is also quite interesting that as the Ontario government upholds the "Safe Schools Act" and preaches against violence and bullying, the Ministry of Education and school boards allow the Canadian Armed Forces to attend high schools for the purposes of recruitment. Is not joining the Armed Forces ultimately for the preparation of war? Is war not about violence? If the Ministry of Education in Ontario is serious about violence then why are the Armed Forces allowed to recruit such vulnerable minds? This is a reminder of another hypocrisy revealed by the American establishment when the former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, stated after the tragedy in Columbine, Colorado that the youth have to resolve their problems with words and not resort to violence - at the very time the U.S. and Canadian military were bombing Yugoslavia through NATO.

Further, teachers who have taken a principled stand on behalf of students, opposing and challenging the unjust, unprincipled "Safe Schools Act" have been persecuted by various school boards and administrators in Ontario. The school boards and administration, to justify their actions have created lies and false pretences against certain teachers who have taken a stand against the Act. This is why it is important that concerned teachers, students and the communities organize so that their numbers and organization represent strength against the repressive Act.

These punitive and fascist measures introduced and implemented by the Ministry of Education and school boards fully demonstrate how bankrupt the ruling circles are, the contempt they have for our youth, and their unwillingness to investigate where the problem originates.

[the criminalization of the youth is a purposeful agenda]

Parents, teachers, youth and other concerned citizens in the community must draw the warranted conclusion that the criminalization of the youth is a purposeful agenda which the youth, teachers and parents must oppose by becoming an organized force which defends youth's right to be. The premises and ideological foundation behind the outlook of "Violence Prevention" and the "Safe Schools Act" must be rejected so as to organize against the Act, eventually scrapping it. Society must focus on providing the problems it faces, including the problems of crime and violence, with solutions.

Stop the Criminalization of Youth!

Scrap the "Safe Schools Act"!


1. See The Ontario Safe Schools Act: School Discipline and Discrimination, by Ken Bhattacharjee, Human Rights Consultant, July 8, 2003, (http://www.ohrc.on.ca/english/consultations/safe-schools.shtml) undertaken for the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

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