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How a high-school principal curbed suspensions with a bit of compassion

Most days at St. Jean de Brébeuf Catholic Secondary School in Hamilton, Ont., principal Mark Daly will at some point rise from his desk, pull on his suit jacket, straighten his tie, and make his way from his office to his “spot” – a strategic corner at the junction of two hallways on the main floor.

When the bell rings and students flood the corridors between classes, Daly is there to greet them. Tall, with close-cropped hair and the build of a former jock, the principal is an imposing but friendly figure. He calls students by name, asking one about a recent test, another about a basketball game and pointedly teases a third about wearing his tuque inside the school (a no-no). Each student responds with unprompted politeness, addressing every adult with “sir” or “miss.”

“It’s important for me to see the kids,” he says, “but even more important for them to see me, and know that I’m there for them.”

From the cheerful, yet contained, chaos in the hallways to the posters promoting racial equality and the rights of LGBT students, it’s difficult to imagine that Brébeuf was once considered one of the more troubled schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic school system.

Principal Mark Daly pores over stats on how well his school’s engagement programs are doing. (Photo by Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

The school has many of the characteristics that lead to disciplinary challenges. It’s overpopulated, with 1,650 students now and up to as many as 2,000 some years – there are 18 portables outside to house the overflow. A significant number of students come from low-income families, or have disabilities, or are recent immigrants.

Police were frequently called in to break up fights or to remove drug dealers, and for years the school relied on punitive measures to control the students. In the 2007-08 school year, Brébeuf imposed as many as 90 suspensions a month.

“There was a secretary at the time whose main job was writing suspension letters,” says Daly.

Today, Brébeuf is one of the brightest success stories in its board’s ongoing efforts to rethink how it disciplines students. Daly credits the turnaround to initiatives that prevent negative behaviour through a focus on relationships and spiritual values, as well as less reliance on punishments such as suspensions and expulsions.

That shift is part of a broader critique of how discipline is meted out in public education. There have long been questions about whether suspensions and expulsions are effective tools for changing bad behaviour, says Katreena Scott, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She says their use reflects more of a punitive tough-on-crime attitude than a proven approach to discipline.

Juac Aguer, 18, left, talks with Brenden Boyle during their physics class. (Photo by Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Data from Canada, the United States and United Kingdom indicate that children with disabilities and children of particular racial backgrounds – black and Hispanic in the U.S., Indigenous and black in Canada, and black in the U.K. – are far more harshly punished and far more frequently suspended and expelled than their white or East Asian peers. Boys are far more likely to be suspended than girls, but the racial disparity is consistent for girls in the U.S. as well. In 2011-2012, American black girls in public elementary and secondary schools were suspended at a rate of 12 per cent, compared to just 2 per cent for white girls, according to the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education.

Very few jurisdictions in Canada make public annual statistics regarding suspensions and race, but one report from the Toronto District School Board revealed that, in 2006-2007, black students were suspended at three times the rate of white students that school year (black students made up 12 per cent of high school students but accounted for 31 per cent of suspensions).

The consequences of these kinds of punishments can include lower academic achievement, higher drop-out rates, and a great susceptibility to involvement in criminal activity. Some critics have claimed that the racial disparity in discipline is creating a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

OISE’s Scott says the impact of suspensions and expulsions doesn’t just fall on the students who receive the punishment. “A school culture that has a high degree of social control and crime-and-punishment policies creates a bad climate for student success and student engagement overall,” she says. “The better-behaved kids start to do poorly, too. Instead of feeling safer, they begin to feel less so, and they begin to see their school as less caring and less supportive.”

Brébeuf’s transformation started around 2007. In part, this was a result of the softening of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s “zero tolerance” policy instituted by the Mike Harris government, which was in place between 2001 and 2007. In the school year after the legislation was enacted, the number of students suspended in the province peaked at 157,436, nearly 50,000 more than were suspended in 2000.

Students in Susan Monachino's computer technology class break down computers before reassembling them. (Photo by Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Witnessing the impact of high rates of suspension during the zero-tolerance era, the Hamilton Catholic board had begun independently reconsidering the use of exclusionary discipline. “Anytime a child was removed from a learning environment, that was a serious concern for us,” says Toni Kovach, assistant superintendent of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board.

The Hamilton Catholic board introduced alternative forms of discipline, such as restorative justice, in which students who have caused harm have the opportunity to make amends. Kovach says this approach has been supported by faith-based curriculum within the Catholic system, which teaches forgiveness and reconciliation. Schools added lessons in emotional literacy, social skills and self-regulation. Teachers who are adept at working with children who have behavioural problems are encouraged to mentor their peers.

That latter initiative is crucial, Scott says. “The number one issue I hear from teachers is that they want more training in discipline strategies and managing students with behavioural challenges, or mental health concerns.”

Two incidents within the Ottawa Catholic school board in February highlight what can occur when schools lack the resources or training to appropriately integrate and support children with disabilities. Police were called to intervene in two separate cases involving autistic boys; one, aged nine, wound up in handcuffs, and the other, aged 14, who allegedly struck his principal, is now facing criminal charges.

At Brébeuf, some of the disciplinary changes were already underway when Daly arrived six years ago. He boosted student engagement by adding more clubs, and got the board’s approval to make improvements to the school’s infrastructure, refurbishing the gym and cleaning up an abandoned courtyard.

Principal Mark Daly has implemented programs to keep his students engaged. (Photo by Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

When he learned that some children were coming to school hungry, he started a breakfast program which now feeds more than 120 students each day. A hallway that had been devoted to grade 12 students’ lockers led to bullying and harassment when younger students passed through it, so Daly spread the older ones’ lockers throughout the school and encouraged them to act as mentors to the younger ones.

Two of his most significant changes, he says, were small ones. He lifted the ban on smartphones in school, allowing students to use them outside of class time, which immediately reduced conflict as student compliance increased. The same thing happened with uniform compliance: Students must wear their full uniform four days a week, but are permitted hoodies and T-shirts and other civilian clothes on Wednesdays. He says that trusting his students and giving them more freedom resulted in them acting more responsibly.

Daly drops into classrooms unannounced to check in with teachers and students. The school’s three vice-principals, armed with walkie-talkies to keep in contact with each other, spend much of their days on the go, counselling students, coaching teams and supporting teaching staff.

Daly says he never set out to directly reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, and he still administers them for infractions such as drug-dealing and fighting. He and Kovach both say that student safety is the primary concern of the board, and that there are some cases in which removing a student from school is still the best response.

At St. Jean de Brébeuf, a looser approach to discipline has encouraged students to care about their community. (Photo by Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

However, behaviour has improved dramatically at Brébeuf. Daly says he suspends and expels less often not because the policy has changed, but because he has far less reason to discipline his students. Seven years ago, there were as many as three suspensions a day; now there are two or three per month. Kovach says that trend is consistent with Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic schools overall. In 2012-2013, there were 1,828 suspensions board-wide, down more than 50 per cent from a decade earlier (3,777).

Lisa Gondo, 18, says that when she entered the school four years ago in grade nine, it had a reputation for “being a rough school, a place people said they were scared of.” Now, the senior and student council vice-president says she can’t remember the last time there was a physical altercation, or even a verbal fight between students. “The students here really care about one another and care about the school,” she says.

Once most of the students have made their way to their next classes, Daly walks the halls teasing a few stragglers and high-fiving a group of girls on their way to the gym. He points out student artwork displayed along the walls, beside photos of champion sports teams, and then shows off the video monitors that display news and announcements. When he put them up a few years back, he was told by some other administrators not to do it because kids at “school like Brébeuf” would smash them. Not a single one has been harmed. “We’ve got the best students in the city at our school,” he says. “We know that. And we want them to know that, too.”

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