child looking defeated in class

With What is Going On in Schools, Are Parents Wrong to Get an Education Lawyer To Challenge Educators’ Decisions?

On Monday of this week, a 12-year-old girl was tasered and arrested after assaulting several people at her elementary school, while a few kilometres away, at almost the same time, a 14-year-old girl stabbed another student at her high school, and another student was shot at a subway station on his way home from school. Most teachers say they have seen or experienced violence while teaching at school. With all of that going on, it seems like the discipline measures in school are not strict enough to keep students in line.

In these circumstances, how can parents justify hiring an education lawyer for their child? The bulk of the work of education lawyers is to fight expulsions and suspensions and advocate to get services for students with special needs in both public and private schools. While education lawyers also advocate for the victims of bullying to ensure that the school environment is one they can safely learn in, it might seem that parents who turn to lawyers are trying to protect their children from the consequences of their poor behaviour or lack of scholastic aptitude.

However, a deeper look reveals that kids often fall between the cracks in school (both public and private schools) and more frequently, that is either not related to school violence or not the result of it. Kids getting what they need in school is a strong predictor of a healthy school environment and a rush to impose harsh discipline is usually misguided.

In my experience as an education lawyer, children who are expended, or repeatedly expelled, almost without exception, fall into one of the following categories:

  • Racialized minorities (especially black, South Asian, Aboriginal and Latin communities);
  • Students with special needs (often known but not “formally identified”)
  • Students of the type who have read The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy or who are intimately familiar with at least five of the Star Trek Series
  • Students who have had any involvement with a Children’s Aid Society

Belonging to one of those groups is a far greater predictor of whether a student will receive formal discipline than that student’s participation in any particular type of behaviour. On the flip side, white captains of sports teams rarely receive formal discipline regardless of what they get up to. The St. Mike’s Scandal showed how willing schools can be to turn a blind eye to the poor behaviour of their student star athletes.

The collected statistics bear that out with 48% of expelled students being black, 48.04% of suspended students, and 44.4% of expelled students having special needs. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also raised concerns about the discriminatory imposition of school discipline.

Put bluntly, educators focus their harshest discipline on the most vulnerable students, not on the ones with behaviour that must be corrected.

For my colleagues, and myself, practicing education law, it is extremely rare that we lose an expulsion appeal. In fact, it has been many years. While it may be tempting to just attribute that to being exceptional lawyers, I think the students and families deserve the credit. In almost all the cases we see, the expulsion was inappropriate in the student’s circumstances. Often the behaviour, where it occurred at all, was the result of a student’s acknowledged, if not identified, needs not being met, or the student finally reacting to being bullied or teased. Often students are expelled or suspended not for committing a “suspendable” or “expellable” offence but because of racism or other forms of discrimination. Apparently, almost everything black kids do is more intimidating and nerdy kids are more dangerous because they are more likely to “snap” and do something ingeniously very harmful. Those actions do nothing to promote either those children’s education or the safety and education of the other students.

For at least the last five years (longer in reality), the Ministry of Education, through Policy/Program Memorandum 145 has directed publicly funded schools to focus on a whole-school approach to supporting every student as being the best way to encourage positive student behaviour and using progressive discipline as necessary, which should rarely get to the imposition of more serious forms of discipline. As noted in that Memorandum, “a positive school climate exists when all members of the school community feel safe, included, and accepted, and actively promote positive behaviours and interactions.”

Making sure that students’ needs are met, and they get the necessary assistance with their challenges, is the most effective way to promote positive behaviour and a safe environment. This means several things that build on children’s inherent desire to learn. It means making sure students do not feel frustrated, scared, ignored or hopeless as that causes them to act out. It means making sure that students have the necessary resources to succeed. It also means having adequate resources, including staff, in place to address the needs of children with more complex needs at school – especially where a lack of resources creates a risk of harm.

Sadly, there are educators who only do what is necessary for a student when they must. Sometimes, with limited resources available to a school, it is easier to just say “no” to requests for accommodations. When parents do not know the “rules of the game” it is easier for principals and teachers not to follow them. Parents who appear disadvantaged, or who do not know what paths to take can see their children flounder. As that child struggles, frustrations build and the child can adopt less positive strategies to get attention, find help, or release those emotions.

It can be remarkable how things can change for a student when suddenly that student’s parents, or an advocate for the student, knows “the rules” or “the law” and lets the school administration know they know. Armed with the knowledge of what should be happening, parents, or their advocates, often see it start happening.

One of the rewards of being an education lawyer is the lack of “repeat customers.” Kids who get what they need, succeed. They don’t have more problems. We, as education lawyers, don’t see them again. So, as education lawyers, we are not creating excuses, or taking away consequences that lead to an escalation of behaviour. Our services address the causes of that behaviour, ensure it is addressed, and put an end to it.

So no, parents are not wrong to get an education lawyer to help their child. getting advocacy help for students who need help is exactly what parents, and other family members and friends should do to reduce school violence, and help kids learn and succeed.

If your child has needs and their school is not meeting them, is important to speak to an education lawyer immediately. There are lots of options that can force the school to provide the necessary help to your child so that he or she can succeed in school. To contact Ontario Education Lawyer, John Schuman, call 416-446-5847, email him or use the contact form at the bottom of this page. 

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You can get a lot more information about Ontario Family Law issues, including a comprehensive explanation of parenting cases (parenting time and decision making), child support, spousal support, property division, and most other common family law issues by downloading this $9.99 Kindle eBook, Kobo eBook, or iBook for your iPad or iPhone or ordering it from Amazon as a paperback. But to understand how the law works precisely in your situation, it is always best to speak to a good Family Law Lawyer.

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