Students Deserve a Safe Learning Environment

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Saunders Secondary School in London, Ontario is home to approximately 2,000 students. It’s been in the news a lot lately, but not in a good way.

A recent CBC story quoted an anonymous teacher who described Saunders as a “tinderbox of violence” where students regularly challenge teachers to fist fights after school. Over the last six months, police visited the school 28 times to deal with incidents of assault, theft, and property damage.

Students also went on the record to describe what life was like at Saunders. “So much crazy stuff happens,” stated one Grade 10 student. “It’s kind of dangerous. You just get used to it. People breaking down windows is pretty normal these days.”

This is totally unacceptable. Violence should never become normalized in any school. If students do not feel safe, they won’t be able to learn.

Obviously, violent students need to be removed from school. Those who commit more serious criminal acts should be suspended for longer periods of time. The fact that violent incidents continue to happen regularly at Saunders indicates that school administrators are too slow to suspend violent students.

However, some education officials seem to have a different perspective. For example, the education director for the Thames Valley District School Board (which includes Saunders Secondary School) has stated that schools in his region are suspending too many students. This director wants to focus instead on addressing the root causes of student misbehaviour.

The problem with this approach is that it fails to ensure the safety of the remaining students, most of whom genuinely want to learn. When violence becomes normalized in school, it becomes virtually impossible to have a safe learning environment for anyone.

This does not mean, however, that school administrators should adopt draconian zero-tolerance discipline policies. While zero-tolerance policies look good on paper, they often lead to absurd disciplinary actions.

For example, there have been multiple cases throughout North America of elementary school students being suspended for pointing a “finger gun” at other students. Students have also been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a picture of a gun. It is unlikely that these types of suspensions make schools safer.

At the other extreme are the schools where administrators try to avoid suspending anyone, even students who commit egregiously violent acts. Obviously, criminal acts such as assault, vandalism, and drug dealing must not be tolerated in any school. Students who engage in these types of activities have forfeited their right to be in a learning environment.

However, it’s also important to address behavioural issues long before they become violent. Cracking down on bullying, maintaining orderly classrooms, and preventing physical altercations in the hallways are the types of things all school administrators should focus on. This would have a positive impact on safety.

Thus, schools must avoid the equally misguided extremes of zero-tolerance policies and permissive idealism. Rather, school administrators should set and enforce clear standards of behaviour for all students and do so in a way that allows teachers to use their professional judgment. Rules need to be carefully designed, clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

All schools, whether elementary or high school, should be orderly places of learning. Students deserve a safe learning environment.

 

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.