Students in Ontario schools will face automatic suspensions if they swear at a teacher and immediate expulsion if caught providing drugs or alcohol to other students under a tough new code of discipline to be in effect this fall, Premier Mike Harris said yesterday.
"Our top legislative priority for this spring will be to make our schools, to make our parks, to make our neighbourhoods safer for our young people," the Premier said.
School boards now have their own codes of conduct, but teachers and parent groups complain that the enforcement is often lax and inconsistent.
The provincewide code of conduct, to be presented to the legislature this spring, would affect more than 2.2 million students and give teachers the power to suspend students and allow principals to impose suspensions and expulsions unilaterally.
Currently, teachers can only recommend suspensions to principals, who then decide whether to impose them. The new rules would require only the teacher's complaint. Likewise, permanent expulsions from the school system can now be ordered by a school board only after a full hearing at which the student and his or her parents can present a defence. But under the new zero-tolerance rules, there would be no hearing before the board.
Mr. Harris said the government wants "to take away the excuses and the exceptions that society has given for what ends up being criminal behaviour."
Carrying a weapon, threatening a teacher and vandalism are also among the acts that would result in penalties as harsh as being expelled and sent to a strict-discipline school, modelled on the province's so-called boot camps for young offenders.
Additionally, the government plans to bring in a law that would make parents financially responsible for property damage if their children break the law, Mr. Harris told reporters.
And he wants teachers, principals and other school officials to be more diligent in enforcing the legislated code of conduct than they have been with the codes of conduct already established by school boards across the province.
"There's not much point in having [the code]unless there's an enforcement mechanism," he said.
Education Minister Janet Ecker said parents could be given the power to complain if school authorities fail to enforce the new code of conduct.
"We need good, strong codes of behaviour. We need good, strong enforcement mechanisms with them. We need good training for the staff so that they know what to do. And we need to make sure there's a good link with the parents," she said.
The proposal received a warm reception from one union that frequently battles the government.
Jim Smith, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, said his union favours "any program which will further reinforce standards of behaviour, codes of conduct and a values orientation."
But he cautioned that the government must ensure "there are consistent and very clear criteria" about what constitutes an offence and what penalties are imposed to ensure uniform application across the province. "What one teacher considers to be an offence that warrants some kind of measure may not be applied in a different school or in a different classroom."
Phyllis Benedict, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation, complained that the crackdown against violence follows five years of stripping the schools of the money to help children with behavioural problems.
"This Premier can stand up and make all the grand statements that he wants. But unless he's prepared to put money behind the programs that make a difference in the schools, it's just empty air."
Liz Sandals, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, cautioned against giving teachers the power to suspend and giving principals the power to expel students.
Under the current system, the principal acts as a third party when a teacher complains about a student and the school board acts as a third party when a teacher and a principal want a student expelled, Ms. Sandals said.
The government's emphasis on the safe schools legislation comes in the wake of media coverage of teen violence.
In February, three teens were shot just outside Emery Collegiate in northwest Toronto. Last November, 15-year-old Dmitri (Matti) Baranovski was beaten to death by a gang in a park.
Plans for the code of conduct were first revealed a year ago. The proposal proved popular as part of the Progressive Conservative Party's re-election campaign last June.
The government is determined to make the fight against teen violence a major focus of the provincial political scene after the legislature resumes sitting on April 3.
"This is not a new theme," said John Wright, senior vice-president at the Angus Reid Group of survey researchers. "This is a well-focused and advanced piece that started a year ago and the government gets good marks every time it talks about keeping respect and discipline in the schools."
The government can count on public support on the issue of school safety, which may help offset some of rough patches it is about to face.
Government threats to test teachers and to increase teaching duties in high schools -- coupled with little new money for the system and forcing layoffs -- have stoked the fires in the on-going battle with teacher unions.
And the unusual peace in the health-care system of the past two months is about to be shattered as negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association over doctors' fees reach their deadline at the end of the month.
To bolster its safe-school campaign, the government brought in three parents and two teachers to praise the plans for a tougher code of conduct.
Lynda Covello said her 10-year-old son missed five weeks of school after he was beaten in a school yard.
"There needs to be a better system for tracking behaviour in the schools. . . . There needs to be a system of consequences. . . . We create incubators for bullies," she said.
CODE OF CONDUCT
Ontario's tougher rules for students Expulsion automatic for students who bring weapons onto school property, provide drugs or alcohol to others or who commit criminal assault. Suspension the minimum penalty for possessing drugs or alcohol, for threatening or swearing at teachers and for vandalism. Teachers given power to impose detentions and suspensions. Principals and vice-principals given right to expel students. Expelled students to be sent to strict discipline programs. Parents of students with attitude and behaviour problems given power to apply to have their children sent to strict discipline programs. School property off-limits to all but teachers, students, parents and registered visitors between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mandatory criminal-background checks for everyone teaching or working in schools. School uniforms and dress codes to be established if supported by a majority of a school's parents. Parents to be made financially responsible for property damage and other consequences of their children breaking the law.