It used be a saying that school secretaries would tell parents when their child was sick and parents sent their child to school anyway because last minute care-giver arrangements were too complicated, or not pre-arranged, or the other parent was not able to stay home from work.

Today however, this statement is often told to parents from the school administration teams who make a decision that they simply don’t want the student there for a variety of reasons. This practice has been creeping into the vernacular of school officials at an alarmingly increased rate in recent years.

Many parents of special needs children have been told to keep their child home because of an episode at school, to provide relief for the teacher or other students after a particularly difficult day.

Other parents have been told to keep their child at home because of behavioural issues, similarly after an incident the previous day, so that staff could prepare and put a ‘plan’ into place before the child’s return. If your child happens to be an adolescent, this may or be not be called a suspension from school, depending on their age and the type of incident.

But can school administrators really ask parents to keep a child home from school? Or to pick them up from school in the middle of the day because of an incident?

The answer is twofold: officially there is nothing in the Education Act that states that parents have to follow this directive from a school administrator, but the Act does state that the principal, or vice-principal as a delegate, has the authority to manage the school and see to its overall functioning in the best interest of all students. This leaves a gaping grey area for parents to deal with when a school administrator wants to take full advantage of his or her management rights and even allows for abuse of authority in the form of intimidating parents with ‘or else’ statements often following a request to keep a child at home.

If a parent refuses to come and pick up a child from school, they are pressed to ask an alternate adult to do so. Some parents have been pushed to the point where they are called to pick up their child on a regular basis from the school, often because of behavioural issues, and if they refuse, they are told that the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) will be called to pick up the child and the parent will have to deal with the agency to justify their actions.

Bullying doesn’t just happen in the school yard but also in the principal’s office

Many parents have reported increasingly feeling bullied from school administrators who seem tired of dealing with their child and his or her challenges. The school attempts to push back the responsibility onto the parent, by making the parent think their child’s behaviour is their problem, not the school’s.  It is made into a parenting issue rather than focusing on why the child is exhibiting negative behaviour in the school setting.  Special programs are pushed on the parent as an alternative, which remove the child from the regular school setting, in an attempt to ‘fix them’ and then return them to the same school environment. However, in some schools, basic  intervention,  and plans,  have not been created in the first place, or implemented in the second place or monitored in the third place, in order to justify such drastic measures as removing a child from school. All children must attend school by law, and the removal of a child needs full transparent justification through timely, documented evidence. A parent has a right to ask for this evidence as it is a part of school board policy under several different titles, Progressive Discipline being the most common.

The parent has a right to know how a child is dealt with at school, how school personnel have attempted to mitigate the situation, what creative solutions and new ideas have been tried, and to include the child in problem solving the situation (and yes even kindergarten aged children can participate in this type of collaborative problem solving strategy) . There must be a written plan in place for the parent and the school personnel to sign off on, for reference and documenting purposes, otherwise there are just wasted conversations taking place.

Parents are bullied too

There is no worse feeling for a parent than to feel that their child is no longer wanted at the school, that staff have disengaged from helping him or her or that simply, as most parents report in this type of situation, ‘ the school just doesn’t care’. All that rhetoric about safe schools, inclusive learning environments and anti-bullying initiatives mean nothing to a parent who feels cast aside with their child from that setting. Exclusion of both parent and child is cruel and goes against every regulation and policy in place in school board policies and Ministry of Education regulations.

Schools are busy places no doubt, and teachers have increasingly challenging, if not overwhelming jobs to do,  which no longer just involve teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic.  Leadership, engagement and support to students happens when there is leadership, engagement and support to teachers from solid principalship.  However, society’s lack of responsibility towards ownership of a problem or situation has crept into the education sector as well. Recycling weak principals with poor leadership and little expertise by floating them around different schools far too often, often mid-year, is lack of leadership, engagement and support to a school community from school board officials.  Transparency and accountability are not yet concepts ingrained in school board administrative culture, as phone calls are preferred ways of communicating in some schools to avoid email communication and lack of documentation.

Students needs advocates, parents need advocates

When students face challenges in the school environment they rely on the guidance of adults to help them out. When the adults fail in this role, students feel abandoned, disillusioned and alone and turn to peers for guidance, especially in high school.  Dealing with adolescents demands a special skill set in interpersonal communication, not a high handed authoritative approach which is still prevalent in many high schools.   If students don’t have parents to advocate for them, or parents who feel intimidated when advocating for their children, then they must turn to outside advocates.

With the passing of Bill 8 into legislation recently, the Ontario Ombudsman now has jurisdiction over school boards and their practices. This change is a welcome one, as many issues in education at the local school board level will now be dealt with by an independent body of the Ontario government. All it takes is the initiative to file a complaint online, when students and parents have tried their best to communicate and solve challenges within their school board.

However, having a Student Ombudsman within each school board would be a great way to steer complaints away from a provincial mechanism to one within the school system itself, offering an advocate to parents and students and showing leadership, engagement and support from school board officials in a transparent and accountable framework.

 

Websites:

www.ombudsman.on.ca

www.horizoned.ca

 

Monika Ferenczy
Educational Consultant
Horizon Educational Consulting