How ‘Progressive Discipline’ Turned Ontario Schools into a Battleground

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of an ongoing investigation into Ontario’s public-school system.

A 200-pound Ontario middle schooler was getting ready to pummel his classmate when a group of teachers escorted him to an office where they hoped to calm him down — instead, he proceeded to ram into the two adults, a man and a woman, for the better part of an hour, leaving them shaken and bruised. He never faced any consequences.

“You should have seen their bruises. The guy’s back is totally messed up. The girl still has arm issues,” Margaret, a teacher with over a decade of experience in Ontario’s public schools, told National Review.

Worried about the potential repercussions, the teachers who were assaulted were not able to physically restrain the student, nor did senior school administrators expel him.

“All he got was an in-school suspension. His mom came to pick him up, asked if he wanted dumplings, and they left. There were no consequences,” Margaret said.

The veteran teacher explained that the administration’s indifference to staff members being physically assaulted stemmed from the student’s historical behavior: “That’s his baseline.” Under the school district’s present approach to discipline, if aggressive and dangerous behavior is typical for a student, then only behavior that exceeds the norm is dealt with.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

Just two decades ago, only a fraction of Ontario teachers reported being physically assaulted in school. Thanks largely to Conservative premier Mike Harris’s passing the Safe Schools Act in 2000, administrators adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward violence. Suspensions and expulsions rose in subsequent years as the message trickled down that disruptive behavior would be deterred by “strict rules and mandatory consequences.”

Growing pushback that Safe Schools unevenly targeted minority groups led the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to investigate allegations of discrimination in 2005. Two years later, the OHRC reached an agreement with the succeeding Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty, acknowledging that the “widespread perception” of current policies “can have a disproportionate impact on students from racialized communities” that “can further exacerbate their already disadvantaged position in society.”

The writing was on the wall.

The month the settlement was publicized, the McGuinty government — led by education minister Kathleen Wynne — introduced the Progressive Discipline and School Safety bill in a bid to overhaul Safe Schools­. Within two months, Progressive Discipline received royal assent and took effect in February 2008.

The new approach marked a radical departure from the traditional view of school discipline. Henceforth, administrators embraced a “whole-school approach that utilizes a continuum of prevention programs, interventions, supports, and consequences to address inappropriate student behavior,” Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced.

The new model transformed the student-teacher relationship to one in which the ultimate goal was the creation of “safe, equitable and inclusive” learning spaces. Progressive Discipline curtailed the ability of teachers to suspend students and defanged principals of their power to expel. Instead, educators were encouraged to address “root causes” to change student behavior.

The effort to prioritize the emotional experience of students over the need to maintain order had predictable consequences: Whereas only 7 percent of teachers in Ontario schools were the victims of physical abuse in 2005, by 2017 that number had spiked to 54 percent. This academic year is on track to become the most violent in history for the Toronto school district, the largest and most influential in Canada.

The new approach to student discipline, which mirrors the approach adopted in many big-city public schools in the U.S., made schools unequivocally more dangerous. A landmark 2021 academic report surveying thousands of educators found that almost 90 percent reported experiencing some form of violence in the 2018-2019 school year. The overwhelming majority of teachers reported harassment and violence increasing in recent years, in what academics have called an “epidemic of violence.”

Although school safety has reached new lows, students are no more likely to face serious consequences, according to publicly available disciplinary data dating back to 2007. Since the legislative change that year, the school suspension rates virtually halved from 4.32 percent to 2.21 percent for the 2019-2020 academic year. Expulsions have followed the same trend.

Simply put, Progressive Discipline deprioritized school safety, according to over two dozen people from across the province — teachers, principals, trustees, and concerned parents — who described their experiences to National Review for this series on Ontario schools.

Educators pulled back as concerns over violence and misbehavior were systematically disregarded.

“It has progressively become worse and worse,” Robert, an English teacher and former union representative with 20 years of experience, admits. “Older teachers were used to something being done right away. If a student gives you the finger, they’re going home.”

That is no longer the case.

“They basically got licensed to do what they wanted,” Robert said, his exasperation evident.

The group interviewed by NR represents a wide swath befitting the ever-diversifying Canadian landscape: men and women; immigrants and citizens; liberals and conservatives; city and country folk; old and young; religious and nonreligious; gay and straight.

Many wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. Others who believe Progressive Discipline has unleashed chaos on Ontario schools refused to speak entirely. Only a few defenders of the approach agreed to speak on the record.

‘Discipline’ as a Dirty Word

The specific year escapes Robert, but around “2008 or 2009,” terms such as “restorative justice” began appearing as “discipline” became a dirty word, driven from educators’ vocabularies. The flourishing of progressive euphemisms such as “positive discipline” or “redirection” came into vogue as the traditional model of student behavior, centered on reward and punishment, fell out of favor. Teachers were now encouraged to adopt “relational” approaches with students.

Today, students between junior kindergarten and Grade Three can no longer be suspended even if they threaten to “inflict serious bodily harm on another person,” swear at a teacher, or bully other students. The weight of correcting behavior and tolerating distractions has instead been transferred to overburdened teachers.

Trish, a slender teacher with brown hair and glasses fitting the part, has been punched twice by a young student. The child had a well-known history of assaulting students and faculty members, routinely becoming so enraged that on several occasions Trish was forced to evacuate her classroom to protect other students while the boy was left to vandalize the room at will.

School policy has effectively handcuffed Trish.

“When I’m in my class and he picks up chairs to throw across the room, the only thing I can do is evacuate my students.” Protocol dictates that Trish must call for a teacher with a Crisis Prevention Institute training certification, the only staffers permitted to physically intervene in such cases. The procedure is so constraining that when the student is assaulting another peer, Trish can only use her body as a shield.

If Trish were to defend herself, it could jeopardize her career. She’s been teaching for only a handful of years, so Trish has no desire to “rock the boat” with the administration. “I think nobody wants to do that because no one wants to put themselves on the line. When he hits me, I can’t stop him. I have to let it happen because I can’t hold him or stop him.”

The reports Trish files in the wake of such incidents always fall on deaf ears, she says.

“I was given the impression that it wasn’t worth my time. Because he wasn’t going to be suspended: Nothing was going to come of it,” Trish adds. But she leaves a paper trail anyway “for other teachers in the future” or “in case anything comes from somebody else’s parents.” At the end of the day, “I know that I filed the report. I’ve saved my own butt by filing it. I can only do what I can do.”

The rude awakening has been disheartening for Trish, who entered teaching because she struggled academically as a kid. She went years with an undiagnosed learning disability, but educational mentors along the way steered Trish toward success. She brought this same passion to teaching but now cautions other to pause before going to teachers’ college.

“I already wouldn’t tell someone to go into this profession. I’m going into my job every day stressed. I’m in fight-or-flight every day. I’m going to work, I’m getting hit, I’m being sworn at, and I’m only dealing with Grade Ones,” she says.

Trish is not even 30 years old.

The lessons reinforced to the children and educators at Trish’s school have become increasingly commonplace across Ontario. Rather than creating a virtuous cycle of better understanding between the staff and students, schoolyards are considerably more violent today than in years past.

Courtney, a public-school Francophone teacher with over a decade of experience, has never been personally assaulted by a student but knows of many colleagues who have. “We did have a kid at the school who was physically aggressive. I never taught him; thank God. But we have teachers who were physically assaulted by him,” Courtney said. Much like Margaret’s and Trish’s stories, the student continuously evaded discipline despite a well-known violent past “because he had a history.”

“There were basically no consequences for him. His mom came and picked him up, and that was it.” Asked whether she felt empowered by Progressive Discipline, Courtney dismissed the notion. “The first time it’s maybe a talking to and a warning. The thing is it ‘progresses’ but it never really progresses.”

Removing the Last Guardrail

For all the shortcomings of Progressive Discipline, there was still one guardrail, a holdover from a saner time that teachers could still count on: cops in schools.

Jordan Manners, a black high schooler at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate, became the first ever Toronto student to be shot and killed in school in 2007.

The following year, police in cooperation with the Toronto school board created the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, stationing law-enforcement officers at dozens of schools across the city.

A 2017 survey conducted by the school board revealed that black and indigenous students disproportionately reported feeling “watched or targeted,” making them “uncomfortable or very uncomfortable interacting” with law officers in school.

Nevertheless, the SRO program largely succeeded in preventing shootings and other lethal encounters in Ontario public schools.

The same survey showed an overwhelmingly positive response from a majority of students, parents, and staff members. Of the nearly 16,000 students polled, 57 percent said SROs made them feel safer, with 35 percent unsure. Only 10 percent disagreed. The disparity was even more pronounced among the roughly 500 parents asked: Over three-quarters saw SROs having a positive impact on school safety. Only 8 percent wanted to scrap the program. Likewise, nearly 60 percent of the 1,100-school staffers viewed the police presence favorably.

Despite the widespread public backing, the Toronto school board pulled the plug on the program in 2017. Rather than seeking to reform the relationship between the police and schools, foreshadowing the political climate to come, the board simply dismantled and terminated its relationship.

The decision was largely informed by an “equity lens,” as one local activist group writes. Seeing the world from this perspective, the school board sidestepped the complexity and nuance of school safety and discipline. One was either an anti-racist awakened to a world rigidly structured against racial minorities or a callous racist whose silence was violence. Anyone sympathetic to law enforcement or school safety were on the wrong side of history.

Then–Toronto school board chairwoman Robin Pilkey helped carry the vote by an 18-to-3 margin with the help of fellow trustee Marit Stiles. Both sung the praises of removing SROs in the face of evidence that most students felt safer with cops around. Neither Pilkey nor Stiles responded to requests for comment.

Growing unease compelled Pilkey to defend the move in an op-ed.

“I am also more mindful of the challenges, even the hostility we face as a society and within our public institutions, when equity, inclusiveness and anti-oppression, particularly with respect to racialized and marginalized groups, collide with the perceived sense of entitlement and privilege that some attribute, I think incorrectly, to the majority,” Pilkey wrote in the Toronto Star.

The 2022-2023 academic year is now set to be the most violent since records were first kept over two decades ago.

Thomas, a former public-school teacher, admitted that the SRO program was not perfect. “I have mixed feelings about it.” While the majority of police officers Thomas interacted with were nice, there were times when cops would be rude. On a few occasions, Thomas even asked law-enforcement officers to leave the school premises because of their conduct.

No law-and-order conservative, Thomas says he’s seen firsthand the impact of racism on black students and supports high-school students transitioning their genders. However, the Toronto school board’s abrupt about-face on SROs and the ensuing vilification of police left a bad taste. In hindsight, Thomas argues, the school board “has completely dropped the ball on school safety.”

Absent police and saddled with progressive discipline, Toronto schools descended into violence, though Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the school board, rejected the link between eliminating the SRO program and the rise in violence.

“I’m not aware of any data that suggests that, but I don’t believe there is a single reason that may explain the recent increase. I think it’s fair to say that when communities see increased levels of violence, that is also felt in our schools,” he said in a statement.

“There is currently no plan to re-introduce the program (revised or not) to schools,” the statement continued.

There had not been a fatal shooting in a Toronto school since Manners’s death in 2007, until 2022, when Jahiem Robinson, an 18-year-old black student, became the second student victim. Robinson was shot to death — “execution” style, according to police — at David and Mary Thompson Collegiate Institute by a 14-year-old. The following month, Jefferson Peter Shardeley Guerrier, another 18-year-old black student, died from a gunshot at Woburn Collegiate Institute. In mid February, a 15-year-old was shot at Weston Collegiate Institute, allegedly by two juniors, and was left in critical condition.

The suspects are now facing charges of attempted murder.

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