How suspended students are denied due process: Opinion

February 16, 2018
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​From an opinion TVO opinion piece: Imagine for a moment that you've been accused of "threatening" a peer. You know that wasn't what happened. You tirelessly defend yourself, trying to provide context, explaining why you shouldn't be reprimanded. Your pleas go unanswered, and you're ultimately found to have violated the law. You are going to receive a life-altering punishment. You need someone -- some independent party -- to hear your case and make a new finding. But you soon realize you can't appeal this judgment. You have no recourse to challenge this decision on your own. In fact, the law is actually built to prevent you from doing so.

This isn't a scenario from a dystopian novel -- it's a situation many Ontario students face when they're suspended or expelled.

The Education Act gives Ontario schools the authority to suspend or expel students, outlining instances in which principals are required to suspend students, and those in which they have the option to expel them. In the 2015/16 school year, there were 52,236 suspensions and 396 expulsions in Ontario. Schools continue to rely on these practices even though research indicates that they are largely ineffective in deterring problematic behaviours and may even be associated with entry into the juvenile justice system

Given the effects a suspension or expulsion could have on their life, students should have the right to challenge a school's decision. The problem? They can't -- at least not on their own.

Subsection 309(1) of the Education Act indicates who may appeal a principal's decision to suspend -- 311.7(1) does the same for expulsions. Students under the age of 18 (with the exception of 16- and 17-year-olds who have withdrawn from parental control) are given no such right: parents or guardians are the only ones able to appeal the decision to suspend or expel.

Where does this leave students with uninterested or uninvolved parents? What about the guardians who are just too busy or are dealing with other crises? And how do power dynamics and other systemic barriers limit parental intervention? Put simply, some students who independently manage their education are effectively barred from challenging disciplinary practices on their own.

Vulnerable groups, like Black students, must be at the forefront of conversations about disciplinary practices: almost half of all students expelled by the Toronto District School Board alone in the last five years self-identified as Black.

Given the serious ramifications of suspensions and expulsions, and the proof that they are not effective deterrents for inappropriate behaviours, mechanisms should be in place to ensure these practices are used sparingly. Yet, Black students are more likely to face discipline for subjective behaviours, including disrespect, excessive noise, threats, and loitering.

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