On Wednesday September 7, 2011, a hazing incident during frosh week resulted in the suspension and transfer of a Nepean High School student. Three grade 12 student from the Ottawa school were, reportedly, driving near Wesley Avenue and Athlone Avenue when they struck the bicycle of a grade 9 student with an egg. Mykal Baytaluk, the student who threw the egg, has since been removed from the school.
A minor controversy ensued, with supporters of Mykal taking to Twitter in protest, and, subsequently, walking out of classes to urge the school administration to lift the suspension. The ensuing debate focused on the degree of punishment that Mykal received; few questioned the validity of the school’s authority to discipline students for actions that do not take place on school property or at school-sanctioned events. The hazing incident took place thirteen blocks from the school.
The principal of Nepean High School was acting under the power granted to him by the section 306. (1) of the Education act, which reads, “[a] principal shall consider whether to suspend a pupil if he or she believes that the pupil has engaged in any of the following activities… where engaging in the activity will have an impact on the school climate.” The act cites bullying as one such activity, and is regularly used to combat cyber-bullying.
The act is written as to offer wide latitude to school principals in interpreting and applying school discipline to actions committed apart from the high school, as there is no definition as to what having “an impact on the school climate” means. In the United States, there have been questionable expansions of school authority, as in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case, as well as clearly illegal expansions of school power, as in the Pennsylvania webcam incidents. I am not suggesting that the Nepean High School incident rises to such a level, but it is a clear demonstration that the province is ratcheting up the policing power of its schools.
There is a question of due process in matters such as these. The Education Act gives principals and teachers the authority to act immediately when issues arise, including by suspending students, and, in accordance with section 308. (1), a principal need only inform the student’s parents within 24 hours of the suspension. In no other matter of law enforcement are the parents of a minor informed of the matter a day after punishment is meted out. In no other situation will the accused’s first attempt at defence be conducted through appeal.
Further, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has been investigating the impact that the Safe Schools initiative (under which section 306. (1) was brought into law) has had on racial minorities. Studying anecdotal and preliminary data, as well as data from jurisdictions that have invoked similar zero tolerance measures, the fear that the powers granted to principals might be disproportionately applied to non-white students seems well-grounded. There is, as of yet, no conclusive proof, but the indicators show a probability that the law is having a discriminatory effect.
In the Nepean High School situation, the principal acted in accordance with the law; and, certainly, incidents involving students may be betters served through school discipline rather than the justice system, but that does not negate worries that we should have regarding due process and racial discrimination. This matter should demonstrate that we need to ask ourselves, just how much power should school principals have?