Expelled for committing assault with a deadly pen

Margaret Wente
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

February 5, 2008

The school year ended early for Brendan Jones, a 17-year-old Ontario student. He was expelled last week after he wrote an ill-advised short story for his creative-writing exam. The ill-spelled essay featured a female student who took a dislike to her science teacher and clobbered him with a baseball bat.

Instead of flunking Mr. Jones for lousy grammar, the principal kicked him out -- presumably for assault with a deadly pen. The school even phoned the police, who showed up apologetically at his parents' doorstep.

I love this story. It takes me back to a kinder and more innocent time, when people were so hysterical about school safety that kids were expelled for all kinds of non-offences. One 11th-grader penned a dramatic monologue about a bullied kid who plotted to blow up his school. He was arrested, strip-searched, and jailed for a month.

I never dreamed that those would be the good old days.

Today, teachers and school administrators in Toronto tell me about students who (almost literally) get away with murder. Their ability to discipline students who curse out their teachers, run drug rings in the halls, and mug little kids on the way home from school has been crippled by a pendulum that's swung wildly the other way. Suspensions and expulsions are now no-nos; they are taken as proof that a school is failing its "at-risk" students.

"The penalties today are very vague," says one veteran school administrator, who doesn't want to be identified for obvious reasons. "The old penalty for smoking dope was a seven-day suspension. Now you're supposed to look for 'extenuating circumstances.' Is race involved? Age? Does the kid have a learning disability? The confusion is overwhelming." The current education philosophy is that there are no bad kids - only bad adults who don't provide the right "supports." The result is that a handful of disruptive kids can sometimes disrupt an entire school for a long time.

"We're told that you shouldn't be suspending unless the student's continued presence poses a danger to others," says the administrator. If the kid is just cutting class and running his drug business in the halls, that doesn't count. And the word "kid" is a misnomer. So long as a student has not yet graduated, the school system is obliged to accommodate him until he turns 21.

What happened?

Way back in 2000, Ontario's Conservative government introduced the Safe Schools Act, which was designed to curb a growing wave of misconduct in the schools. It outlined a schedule of penalties but gave principals wide discretion. Administrators welcomed the new guidelines, and suspensions jumped.

Then came the backlash. Activists attacked the schools for discriminating against minority (mainly black) students and those with disabilities (i.e., serious mental or behavioural problems). Accusations of racial profiling filled the air. The Ontario human-rights commissioner declared that school practices were racist. Minority students who'd been disciplined began to take the school board to court. The school board, dominated by activist trustees, pressed to have the Safe Schools Act repealed. So did Toronto's mayor. It was.

After that, suspensions plunged again. The school board credited its new anti-violence programs. Privately, administrators said they were under pressure to keep the numbers down and avoid human-rights complaints.

And that's where we are today. The victimizers have been redefined as victims, and the principals have lost the power to expel. Instead, they will get yet more training in anti-racism and cultural awareness. The ones hurt most by this nonsense, of course, are the most vulnerable -- minority kids in poor neighbourhoods, and misbehaving kids who could've been turned around by a simple wake-up call.

Assault with a deadly pen was a lot more fun.