The Winnipeg School Division is reviewing its suspension policy to ensure marginalized students don’t miss the bell when they are disciplined — at times, on repeated occasions — for behaviour issues.
If a student misbehaves, division staff have a number of options, ranging from holding a conference with the child and their parents or guardian to handing out an in-school suspension or temporary ban from school altogether.
"We need to ask ourselves, when we suspend students, do students learn or do we see students repeat the cycle?" said Jennifer Chen, Ward 6 trustee and vice-chair of the division's board of trustees.
On Nov. 18, the WSD’s trustees voted in favour of administration conducting a three-year suspension analysis based on student demographics to identify possible trends and review the division’s suspension policy "to incorporate restorative justice practices that engage students in school as an alternative to suspension."
Ward 8 trustee Betty Edel put forward the motion; she did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
As per the WSD’s current code of conduct, students may be suspended for the possession of weapons, physical or verbal assault, substance use, property damage, misconduct that is considered to be detrimental to a learning environment and the inappropriate use of the internet.
Although principals are encouraged to find an alternative to a suspension from school, they have the authority to ban students from the classroom for up to one week.
Superintendents can suspend students for an additional five weeks, and the board can impose suspensions of six-weeks or longer.
In any suspension, parents are notified immediately about its length and the division’s justification. They can also appeal it.
"The goal of student discipline is to repair the harm done to interpersonal relationships and restore a feeling of security and peace in the school community, which then makes it possible for teachers to teach and students to learn," states the WSD’s code of conduct.
Chen, however, said she and other trustees have been hearing from parents and community activists about how damaging a suspension can be — especially to students of colour, Indigenous students and students from low-income families.
Drawing on her lived experience as an immigrant and visible minority, Chen said traditional school discipline doesn’t always work on marginalized students.
"We really need to look at another way to break the vicious cycle, which is students misbehaving and they get punishment and they misbehave again and get punishment. We need to break that cycle and really address the root cause of that behaviour," she said.
In 2017, the Toronto District School Board published a groundbreaking report that analyzed expulsions in its schools between 2011 and 2016.
The vast majority of expulsions were issued to male secondary school students. Half of the students who were expelled were black. As well, half identified as having special needs.
Chen said she wants to see the WSD conduct a similar review — which she suspects would have similar findings. As for the suspension policy review, she said it’s too early to say how the restorative justice model could work in the division’s schools.
Kent Dueck, who has worked with at-risk youth for more than 30 years, called the review "a really good move."
"If a kid is having a difficult time in school or dealing with trauma at home, then a suspension without a way back in can just sort of add to that. For youth, it’s just another reason to give up on themselves," said Dueck, executive director at Inner City Youth Alive, which runs programs for people between the ages of five and 25, including a North End drop-in centre.
Dueck said a suspension can set into motion long-term absenteeism. A member of the provincial Attendance Task Force, he is an advocate for ensuring students get support in schools so they study and graduate.
The Attendance Task Force held its first meeting April 15. Co-chaired by the deputy ministers of education and justice, its membership includes community advocates, school divisions and the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents.
The task force’s current focus, according to the office of Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, assists divisions in developing strategies to improve attendance.
Dueck said traditional suspensions need to be swapped out for a community support network, which involves drop-in centres, families and friends who support a child who is at-risk of suspension.
"Parents are carrying a lot, often their own trauma; how do you empower parents to be able to get in behind their kids to support them in their education? That’s not easy," he said.
The WSD trustees’ motion will be referred to the division’s policy and program committee, of which Chen is a member. She said it is still unclear when the committee will discuss it and no timeline has been set for a review of suspensions.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society did not provide comment in time for publication.
Maggie is a cub reporter who covers every beat in the newsroom. She appreciates alliteration, when newspaper ink stains her fingertips and, more importantly, tips on social and environmental equity issues.