Karen Sebben - Founder YRABC
Bill 157 - Keeping Our Children Safe
Presentation to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Standing Committee of Social Policy
My name is Karen Sebben and my family and I live in York Region. I have my son Daniel here with me today as well. Daniel wants to be present at these hearings, simply because the outcome of Bill 157 will ultimately reflect on the safety of future students. It’s too late for him, but he whole heartedly supports any student who has lived the experiences he has. To be fearful of your life and contemplate suicide is too much to bear at any age, let alone a young age, and in an environment he expected to be safe in. As a result, he lost his high school years, which is something he can’t get back.
I’m here today because of my dissatisfaction with our government as it relates to the emotional and physical well-being of some of our school children, and our own personal story as it relates to a school system that is fundamentally in need of change.
Parents in our region often have to deal with school and administrative reluctance to get involved with excessive bullying issues. Board administrators often use legislation that is built around “individual cases” and “schools know best” policies on how to deal with excessive bullying and student-on-student violence as an excuse for non compliance in many cases. This is very wide spread throughout the Province, and frustrating for many parents. A parent from my region had to pull her child from one of our local schools and report instances of excessive bullying to the media before the parents’ concerns were even acknowledged by school officials and the board.
Clear legislative language that is not up for interpretation, and clear actions defined in this legislation on how to deal with bullying and student-on-student violence issues, is needed to ensure streamlined board and school compliance.
I have concerns with certain language like “shall” as opposed to “will” and with “as soon as reasonably possible” as opposed to a clearly defined time limitation. The language in this Bill is open ended and subject to different interpretations. A clear course of action, is desperately needed to fix the problems this legislation was intended to tackle.
It is required should there ever be a difference of opinion between a Principal and the legal guardian of a child. A time limitation would offer something definitive and, further, it would provide the Principal with a support mechanism as his/her actions would not be called into question.
Bill 157 is flawed in that it leaves reporting to police to the discretion of the Principal. What you and I may deem of a serious nature may differ from one another. This sends two messages. Firstly, if an incident is not reported to the police, the aggressor may not suffer the consequences necessary in order for him or her to change the negative behaviour. Secondly, a message is sent to the victim that his or her worth as an individual within the school community is of no importance.
The Ontario Principal’s Council has stated that “criminalizing students for their involvement in minor altercations is an over reaction”. I don’t agree. Our Criminal Code is clear. If there is an act of aggression or even “minor altercation” that falls within the list of offences included as grounds for suspension or expulsion, then it is not a “minor altercation” and police must be called. Let’s all remember the young boy who had a belt taken to him by two older students. It was assault, pure and simple.
Question No. 1: How will accountability be addressed if a parent feels that police should have been called, but the Principal, using discretion, made the decision not to?
Ms. Sandals has stated that mandatory reporting to police is clear and that all School Boards have police protocols that comply with Provincial Guidelines and, therefore, did not need to be included in legislation. I disagree for the following reason.
I met with my police force to discuss police/board protocol and to specifically find out how they would deal with a criminal situation if it takes place within a school community as opposed to the mall parking lot. I was told that the same situation taking place in either of these locations would be treated in the same manner. I was told that Extra Judicial measures would be followed in both situations. (See Schedule 1).
As a result of this meeting, I spoke with teachers at the high school level who work closely with their “beat police”. These officers made it very clear that there have been instances in the past where they would have liked to proceed with laying criminal charges but advised that school administration was “tying their hands”.
Question No. 2: Since when does school administration dictate how our police force does its job and, further, as a parent, how do I digest this conflicting information?
On March 23, 2009 Minister Wynne stated “we remain committed to helping all kids reach their potential”. She further stated “the only way that we will ensure safety for all of our students at school is if all people involved in students’ lives take responsibility and work together.”
Indeed, and well said. It takes a community to raise a child, but I personally don’t understand how this can be accomplished with open ended and unclear language within our legislation and police force confusion on how to uphold the criminal code on school grounds.
I firmly believe that it is every child’s civil right to receive a safe education. Differences between our children in any shape or form shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter if that child is gifted or with special learning needs, but it certainly does matter if that child is an aggressor or victim. Our safe schools legislation thus far is very clear in that the focus of our government is for the benefit of the aggressors of our school communities. I am hard-pressed to understand this focus while, at the same time our Minister of Education continually refers to the safety of “all” kids.
Teachers have told me that when they routinely intervene as they come across negative or disrespectful behaviour that requires disciplinary measures, they are not always supported, and discipline is not always followed through with at the administration level. This cannot be considered as working together. We need clear language in this legislation that gives clear actions on what must be done under certain circumstances.
Question No. 3: What accountability can a parent expect if consequences for the negative behaviour of a student are not followed through with on an administrative level?
Currently within Bill 212, there are procedures in place to assist aggressors within our school communities to remain in school and move forward with their education. A good step and very necessary, but it’s only half a step. Bill 212 does not speak to “all” kids either.
The Safe Schools Action Team in their report of December 11, 2008 made very good recommendations relating to victims. It is a shame that out of these recommendations, Bill 157, if passed, will not address removing the alleged aggressor. In our personal situation, the fact the aggressor remained in my son’s school exacerbated the degree of unacceptable risk he endured.
Question No. 4: What does our Ministry of Education intend to do with all or some of the very good recommendations put forth by the Safe Schools Action Team.?
For Example: Prior to Bill 212, Policy 668.0 in the York Region District School Board read as follows:
“Discretionary Expulsion Criteria
A student may be expelled if:
(i) the student’s behaviour or pattern of behaviour (on or off school property) is so inappropriate that the student’s presence is injurious to the moral tone of the school and/or the effective learning/working environment of others;
(ii) the student has engaged in an activity (on or off school property) that causes the student’s continuing presence in the school to create an unacceptable risk to the physical or mental well being of another person(s) in the school or Board.”
In our situation an “unacceptable risk” to our son was most definitely present. The “injurious behaviour” from his aggressor continued for three years. My child was under the care of an outside psychologist and my school administration was aware of this. The aggressor’s “continued presence”in the same school as my son for three years created an “unacceptable risk to the physical and mental well being of my child”. As a result of policy not being followed, the consequences the aggressor endured did nothing to change the behaviour. The aggressor remained at school and continued to learn. My child continued to decline academically and emotionally. He became suicidal and to this day still suffers from chronic stress.
Here was a policy displayed on our Board website. It was plain and clear for any parent like me to read and understand, yet my child endured for three years. It’s either policy to be adhered to, or it isn’t policy.
Question No. 5: What is the purpose of an operational policy if it is not adhered to by administration on grounds of discretion and interpretation? If a parent/victim does not agree with the actions taken, what governing body can they contact?
I wrote to Minister Wynne on a number of occasions to request that she direct the Safe Schools Action Team to consider the possible life long ramifications of a once academically successful and happy student, who has become a student at risk as a direct result of student-on-student violence. At the same time, I explained our personal plight. I received no direct answer to my question. I received no empathy or sympathy from the Minister. I received no acknowledgment that something, somewhere, went terribly wrong, and I certainly received no accountability.
I received Bill 157 which is clearly void of any type of accountability due to the lack of clear actions and directions needed to address the problems our school system currently faces.
Ms. Sandals stated that “sadly, we know there are young people who do not feel safe and welcome at school, and that is unacceptable.” If this truly is unacceptable, why did my Ministry allow my son to continue looking over his shoulder for three long years while he attempted to learn; three long years of waiting to see that he mattered. He is not the only student who has experienced this, and he won’t be the last. It was due to the lack of consequences and accountability on every level as a result of “discretionary powers” in the hands of our school administrators.
On March 23, 2009, Ms. Sophia Aggelonitis stated:
“We annualized $23 million for suspension and expulsion programs”…….”$4 million to boards for training on safe, equitable and inclusion schools”.
Question No. 6: To date, have Ministry funds ever been expended within the school Board for the benefit of its victims? I am well acquainted with a number of other families who were also never offered professional supports from within their Boards.
Bill 157 is not about ensuring the safety of our school children. It is about the delegation of responsibility associated with a discretionary and preventative measure in reporting, and it assumes Principals and other school officials know .
Minister Wynne had a real opportunity to put into place a reporting procedure, strengthened with support mechanisms from within our school Boards for its victims. She had the opportunity to provide existing victims, and future victims, with the belief that this Province actually supports these kids. Instead, she has tabled a Bill which continues the frustration of a system that leaves discretion up to the school and board officials to do what’s best for our kids, which clearly is not happening.
If Bill 157 passes as it reads, we will have a Bill, the first of its kind in this country. Attach to that the title of “Keeping our Kids Safe at School” makes it sound impressive. You’ve reported. So what. Back it up with something concrete. Give it some grit and backbone. Provide clear consequences for the aggressors and supports from within the Board for its victims as well.
It’s really very simple. Until victims and abusers receive equality within legislation, either by way of behavioural, emotional and educational supports, we will continue to see more children at risk as a result of student-on-student violence, and the spirit of this Bill, along with public tax dollars spent on this Committee, will be lost. The focus of supports within legislation for the aggressors of our school communities comes at the cost of our school victims, and the financial cost to not just tax payers, but parents of victims as well.
Yes, we all have to work together, but we cannot just count on the members of our communities, nor put our trust entirely on school officials. Until the tax paying citizens of this Province, whose hard earned dollars support their respective school boards each and every year, see something concrete within legislation, you will continue to see once happy, academically successful students turn into children at risk. Mine did, and I keep asking myself why. Go to work…. pay your taxes…. trust and everything will be okay. Well, my Board is fired, but, unfortunately our laws dictate that I remain at my Board’s mercy. We can truly be proud of ranking 27th out of 35 countries where the safety of our 13 year old students are concerned.
I have a difficult time believing that local school boards and their officials, once granted the right to interpret this legislation and use their own discretion, will ever actually coincide with the spirit of this Committee or with Bill 157.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Committee for the opportunity of attending here today, and for listening to our family experience, which happened as a direct result of “discretionary powers”.
Click here to read Bill 157