Students in Ontario who engage in homophobic smears or beat up their classmates would be given every opportunity to rehabilitate themselves under proposed legislation that also contains tougher consequences for schoolyard bullies.
The intent of the legislation is not just to discipline bullies, but to spot and correct bad behaviour before it escalates. Even though the superintendent of a school board would have new powers to kick bullies out permanently, expulsion would be reserved for the most extreme cases.
"It's really a last resort," Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said, adding that the idea behind the legislation is to keep both the victim and the perpetrator in school and prevent young bullies from turning into "more serious and dangerous older bullies."
Mr. McGuinty and Education Minister Laurel Broten clarified the intent behind the legislation at separate events on Thursday – a day after they unveiled the Accepting Schools Act, known as Bill 13. Both made it clear that the bill does not signal a return to the zero tolerance policies of the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris.
"We are not going back to the zero tolerance days of the Harris government," Ms. Broten said.
The Conservatives introduced the Safe Schools Act in 2000 to curb a growing wave of misconduct. The act called for zero tolerance toward any type of violence and required a principal to expel a student for such things as sexual assault, dealing drugs and assault with a weapon.
The Liberal government has amended the act in response to criticism that it did not provide enough flexibility to schools for disciplining students. Under revisions that came into effect in 2008, school principals can no longer expel students. That authority is reserved for the superintendent of a school board.
The government's proposed anti-bullying legislation builds on the Safe Schools Act by adding bullying to the list of acts that can lead to expulsion.
Bullying can take many forms, ranging from verbal taunts to physical assaults. According to the proposed legislation, only those students who have been temporarily suspended previously for bullying or whose continuing presence in the school creates an "unacceptable risk" to the safety of others would face expulsion.
Ken Thurston, director of education at the York Region District School Board, said he is relieved that expulsion would be reserved for repeated and extreme forms of bullying.
"My concern right now is we need to be sure the message is very clear: that expulsion is not the only answer to the problem," Mr. Thurston said in an interview. "Nor is it in most cases the best answer."
Bullying is an underestimated and pervasive problem in Ontario schools. A survey of students in grades 7 through 12 done by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2009 found that almost one in three students has been bullied.
Mr. McGuinty said the widely publicized suicides of two young people in Ontario – 15-year-old Jamie Hubley and 11-year-old Mitchell Wilson – were uppermost in his mind when he introduced the legislation.
"I just want to make sure that we are taking all reasonable steps as a society to convey to our students, our children, that they should never feel helpless and hopeless in our schools," he told reporters. "There should always be some avenue for them to reach out and get some support."