By Louise Brown — June 2019
You can get suspended from school in Ontario for a lot of things: Swearing at a teacher. Having illegal drugs. Being drunk. Vandalism. Bullying. Fighting. Stealing. Smoking on school property – or these days, vaping.
So it’s probably no surprise that a big-city school with 1,100 students like Toronto’s East York Collegiate Institute might suspend some 100 students a year, or about 10 a month.
And this was the case – but not anymore.
These days, East York Collegiate suspends no more than 10 students a year. It’s not because Principal John Bratina and his three vice-principals are letting these behaviours slide. If that were true, 91 per cent of East York students wouldn’t say they feel safe at school, a percentage that keeps going up.
What is happening, is that East York has taken a fresh approach to discipline that’s less about sending kids home to miss days of class, and more about helping them understand the reasons behind their action, how it affects others, and figure out how to make amends.
It’s part of a larger move to help this school on Coxwell Ave. north of the Danforth, be a community where people respect themselves, respect each other, and take responsibility for their actions – the 3 Rs of its Code of Conduct.
“We see these as teachable opportunities,” says Bratina, who has been working to nurture that climate of respect since arriving here six years ago. “These kids are young, they’re easily influenced and emotionally they can be explosive. At this age, they can have knee-jerk reactions to things you and I would just shrug off, and you don’t want to crucify them for it,” he says – especially for a first offence. “You want to treat it as a learning opportunity.”
This takes more time than handing out a suspension, notes Vice-Principal Gina Dagonas – far more time. Yet she insists it pays off.
“We spend a lot of time sitting with the students, taking the time to find out why they did it, what was maybe going on outside the school (in their lives). Ultimately the goal is for them to accept responsibility for their actions, and to tell the truth,” she says. “This is an educational institution first, so it doesn’t make sense to just send them home without them understandingthe impact of what they did. We’re trying to teach them to control some of their impulses and bring out the best in them.”
Does it work? Absolutely, says 17-year-old East York student Jesse Graziano, who, in a moment of dubious judgment, joined friends in spraying shaving foam around a business class this spring, disrupting the lesson and getting foam on computer keyboards.
“It was very, very bad, and should have been worth a suspension – we were joking around, but it was more than we should have done,” admits the Grade 12 student. “But Mr. Bratina and the office were able to actually reason with us and give us the opportunity to admit to the mistakes that we did, and instead of a suspension, we were able to apologize to the caretakers and get over it like that.”
To build the kind of relationship that will encourage students to open up, Bratina and his vice-principals are re-writing their traditional job descriptions: Less Enforcer, more Mentor. Less Authority Figure, more Role Model.
“If we have a student come down to us, we deal with them in a way that we think respects where they are. It’s educating them, it’s having conversations with them, it’s helping them understand their role in our learning community and understand the gravity of whatever it is they’ve done, hopefully to the point where they realize they made a mistake and take responsibility for it.”
If it involves an apology, Bratina looks for a meaningful gesture, “not one that’s done slouched down looking the other way; it has to make the other party feel like you understand the error of your ways and it’s not going to happen again. It’s all about relationship-building.”
Which takes more than just telling a student: “Here’s the code of conduct and you’ve fallen short of that, so the result is that you’re suspended for this many days,” says Bratina. “We’re here for the student. We talk with them about how we all contribute to our community and we try to model the things we’re asking them to do. We want to be perceived by our students as caring adults, not disciplinarians, so we work through the issue with them and try to have them figure out where they made the mistake, and teach them strategies so it won’t happen again.”
Vice-Principal Margaret Greenberg was the point person for the foam fiasco, and the way she handled it helped Jesse actually change his thinking.
“Miss Greenberg talked to us individually first – well, interrogated us, actually. But she’s really nice and she’s able to talk to you about personal issues, and she knew how to reason with us and actually learn how to admit to what we’d done. I thought that was a good way to cope. We make mistakes. We all had to come in and apologize and say what needed to be said to all the caretakers. It’s obviously really hard to say, but I feel like it was a lot better than a suspension because then nobody would be owning up to their actions. It takes a lot more guts to actually admit to what you did wrong, than just go home.”
Afterwards, Jesse said he actually felt better about himself.
“We had to come into a room where the caretakers and everyone else were all sitting at a table. We all had to state our names, why we did it, and why we won’t do it again. And I never am going to do that again. I realized the stuff I’m doing now, I need to take this more seriously. I’m going to graduate this year. We’re young adults. I don’t need this kind of thing on my record.”
At a school board that has put equity in the spotlight, this focus on “positive discipline” and “restorative practice” has drawn praise from Director of Education John Malloy, who posted a video this spring praising East York for balancing safety and empathy.
“There are standards here; there is progressive discipline, but there’s also a commitment to really listen, and intervene effectively. Staff and the administration truly work to understand what’s happening in the students’ lives. That whole concept of restorative practices is alive and well here.”
But it’s not an easy process. The shaving foam incident alone took several days to resolve because there were a lot of offended parties, recalls Greenberg.
“The teacher was upset at what had occurred. The caretakers ultimately bore the brunt of the clean-up. There were other students who didn’t like having class disrupted, or who didn’t like the heavily perfumed scent of the shaving cream left behind.
“The reality is, with suspensions, we have a lot of leeway. The majority of what happens is the result of bad (student) decisions, and while suspensions are really a punitive response, we’re realizing that behavior is a form of communication. So why does someone behave in a particular way – to get attention? Avoid a class? Instead of providing a punitive response, we’re modelling good ways to communicate with others,” she says. “If you’re trying to avoid a task, instead of spraying foam, you could go to the teacher and say ‘I’m finding the class challenging,’ or ‘I’m not motivated to come to class, and is there anything you can do so I’m not misbehaving my way out of a course?’”
Fellow Grade 12 student Dimitri Papadopoulos, a student mentor to younger pupils, says he’s proud of the way East York handles these kinds of situations.
“Sure, another school might have handed out a suspension for this, but I think a big thing our administration understands and values is that we’re young adults, so we’re treated like young adults. The easiest thing for an administration to do would be to hand out a suspension and send a message to the other students. It takes effort to try to mediate – and a lot of us have thick skulls! So sometimes they come down to our level to see us eye-to-eye.”
In another incident, two senior boys were headed for a fight recently over a female student, and Bratina brought them into the office to try to prevent the escalation. He finds that in the privacy of his office, away from peers, teens are often more willing to make peace than in front of spectators.
“I’m very proud of them; they took responsibility and they reconciled and they’re both good now, and no one’s suspended and there’s no fight. These two young men were pretty big boys, and my concern was that even a verbal altercation in the hallway could have a chilling effect on others – we have 65-pound students in this school! If they see two ‘giants’ yelling and screaming at each other in their booming voices, you just know they’re not going to be thinking about science or geography.”
It was the same process of dialogue that kicked in with the shaving foam incident, says Greenberg.
“With those young men, we spent a lot of time talking about who were the other people in the class? How were they impacted by this action? Does this send an accurate portrayal of you? What can we do going forward to repair the relationships? Because if who you want to be doesn’t coincide with how others are seeing you, we have to make a concentrated effort to change that.”
It’s the same approach East York uses with the growing problem of students vaping at school, which is not only against school rules, but is actually illegal for anyone under 19 under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act.
“It’s become a huge issue this year – it’s the latest craze – and we’re authorized to issue a bylaw enforcement ticket for $305 to anyone we catch vaping, which is usually the 14- and 15-year-olds,” says Bratina. Although they do issue a ticket and confiscate the student’s vaping device (Bratina has a cupboard full of them), they don’t actually submit the ticket to authorities if it’s a first offence. But if there’s a repeat, the school will turn the student in, which could mean a court appearance and $5,000 fine.
“We could send somebody home (on suspension for vaping), but we choose to speak to them first about the legal and health ramifications of vaping – we had a whole assembly in the auditorium about the side effects – and the vast majority don’t have a second episode.”
Yet East York’s drop in suspensions is about more than discipline, insists the principal. He credits a more positive overall climate at the school, where students have more say through a new student council and a growing number of youth-led groups. In the Eco-Club, for example, students like 17-year-old Anika Munir not only hold awareness weeks about waste, water and the Earth, but create iTunes playlists for the student body to listen to when they jog, and tip sheets on having an “eco-date” with your Valentine.
“Every year we get more and more clubs, and it’s the students who are leading them,” raves the Grade 12 student.
Bratina says there’s a collective effort to make people feel welcome.
“We believe that equity and well-being and academic success are linked; that you have to feel that you’re being treated fairly to be able to succeed. “As its sense of safety improves, so do pass rates in many courses, he reports.
There’s also a focus on student mental health, from bringing in therapy dogs during exams to handing out stress-busting colouring sheets over lunch.
“Grade 11 and 12 are typically stressful years, and I had teachers this year and last who would ask us ‘How are you feeling today?’ before they asked ‘Did you do the homework?’” says Grade 12 student Dimitri Papadopoulos. “We had one teacher and that was his thing; he was a tough marker in terms of getting us prepared for the next level, but the first question always was, ‘How are you feeling?’ If we looked stressed in class, he’d pull us aside and talk.”
Grade 12 student Oyinebi Ekiyor said respect is shown to students by everyone on staff from secretaries to guidance counsellors, “who not only know what they’re doing, but they’re always willing to help. They’re respectful and they really care.”
To Dimitri Papadopoulos, positive discipline makes sense.
“A big thing about this school is keeping students in class, and motivating them. So what good would a one- or two-day suspension do? We’re a semestered school, so you’d miss a substantial amount of school. So if you can get the message across in a manner that doesn’t cause students to miss class, that’s a win-win.”