ZWAAGSTRA: Students deserve a safe learning environment

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Saunders High School in London, Ontario, has approximately 2,000 students. He’s been in the news a lot lately, but not in a good way.

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A recent history of Radio Canada quoted an unnamed teacher who described Saunders as a “powder keg of violence” where students regularly challenge teachers to fist fights after school. In the past six months, police have visited the school 28 times to deal with incidents of assault, theft and property damage.

The students also went public with what life was like at Saunders.

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“There are so many crazy things happening,” said a 10th grade student. “It’s a bit dangerous. You just get used to it. People breaking windows are pretty normal these days.

It is totally unacceptable. Violence should never be normalized in any school. If students do not feel safe, they will not be able to learn.

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

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

The problem with this approach is that it does not guarantee the safety of the remaining students, most of whom really want to learn. When violence becomes normalized in school, it becomes nearly impossible to have a safe learning environment for anyone.

This does not mean, however, that school administrators should adopt draconian, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. While zero-tolerance policies sound good on paper, they often lead to senseless disciplinary action.

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For example, there have been numerous cases in North America where elementary school students have been suspended for pointing a “gun” at other students. Pupils have also been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a gun. These types of suspensions are unlikely to make schools safer.

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

However, it’s also important to deal with behavioral issues long before they turn violent. Curbing bullying, keeping classrooms in order, and preventing physical altercations in hallways are the types of things that all school administrators should focus on. This would have a positive impact on safety.

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

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

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

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