ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
NEWS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New Report Reveals that At Majority of Ontario’s School Boards, Each School Principal Is a Law Unto Themselves, With Arbitrary Power to Exclude a Student From School – Real Risk of a Rash of Exclusion of Some Students with Disabilities When Schools Re-Open
July 23, 2020 Toronto: Parents of a third of a million Ontario K-12 students with disabilities have much to fear when schools re-open. A ground-breaking report by the non-partisan AODA Alliance (unveiled today, summary below) shows that for much of Ontario, each school principal is a law unto themselves, armed with a sweeping, arbitrary power to refuse to allow a student to come to school. If schools re-open this fall, there is a real risk of a rash of principals excluding some students with disabilities from school, because well-intentioned, overburdened principals won’t know how to accommodate them during COVID-19.
The Education Act gives each school principal the drastic power to refuse to admit to school any “person whose presence in the school or classroom would in the principal’s judgment be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of the pupils…”. A survey of Ontario’s 72 school boards, unveiled today, shows that a majority of school boards have no policy reining in their principals’ sweeping power. Ontario’s Ministry of Education gives principals precious little direction. Principals need not keep track of how many students they exclude, or for how long, or for what reason, nor need they report this information to anyone. School Boards are left largely free to do as little as they wish to monitor for and prevent abuse of this power.
This is especially worrisome for students with disabilities. Disproportionately, it’s students with disabilities who are at risk of being excluded from school.
Today’s report details how the most vulnerable students can unjustifiably be treated very differently from one part of Ontario to the next. Of Ontario’s 72 School Boards, only 33 Boards have been found to have any policy on this. Only 36 School Boards even responded to the AODA Alliance survey. Only 11 Boards gave the AODA Alliance a policy. A web search revealed that another 22 Boards have a policy on this.
As for the minority of 33 boards that have any policy on point, this report documented wild and arbitrary differences from Board to Board. Some Board policies have commendable and helpful ingredients that all boards should have. Some Board policies contain unfair and inappropriate ingredients that should be forbidden. For example, no Board should impose on a student or their family an arbitrary time limit for presenting an appeal from their exclusion to school.
“Every student facing the trauma of an exclusion from school deserves full and equally fair procedures and safeguards,” said AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky. “The current arbitrary pattern of patchwork injustice cries out for new leadership now by the Ford Government.”
COVID-19 escalates this issue’s urgency. The Ministry of Education should head off a rash of new exclusions from school this fall before it happens, by immediately directing School Boards to implement common sense restrictions on a principal, outlined in the report, on when and how a principal may exclude a student from school.
Download the entire AODA Alliance report on Refusals to Admit A Student to School by visiting https://www.aodaalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/july-23-2020-AODA-Alliance-finalized-refusals-to-admit-brief.docx
The AODA Alliance’s COVID-19 web page details its efforts to ensure that the urgent needs of people with disabilities are met during the COVID-19 crisis.
The AODA Alliance‘s Education web page details its ongoing efforts over the past decade to tear down the many barriers impeding students with disabilities in Ontario’s education system.
Introduction and Summary of the AODA Alliance’s Report on the Power of Ontario School Principals to Refuse to Admit a Student to School
I. Introduction and Summary
(a) What’s the Problem?
For years, Ontario’s Education Act has given every Ontario school principal the drastic power to refuse to admit to school any “person whose presence in the school or classroom would in the principal’s judgment be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of the pupils…”. A student can be excluded from school for part or all of the school day. This report uses the terms “refusal to admit” and “exclusion from school” or simply “exclusion” to mean the same thing.
When a principal refuses to admit a student to school, that violates that student’s right to go to school to get an education. Under the Education Act as interpreted or applied by the Ontario Government and school boards, a student can be excluded from school for days, weeks or even months.
Ontario’s Ministry of Education has given School Boards and principals very little direction on how this sweeping power may be used. School Boards are therefore left largely free to do as much or as little as they wish to ensure that this power is not abused by an individual school principal.
A School Board can develop a policy on how a principal can use the power to refuse to admit a student to school; however, a School Board does not have to do so. If it does adopt a policy, it does not have to be a good policy.
(b) Taking Stock – The AODA Alliance Surveys Ontario School Boards
The AODA Alliance therefore conducted a survey of Ontario’s major School Boards to find out what their policies and practices are regarding the exclusion of students from school. The non-partisan grassroots AODA Alliance advocates for accessibility for people with disabilities, including for students with disabilities. See its website’s Education page.
This report makes public the results of the AODA Alliance‘s survey and investigation. It reveals an arbitrary patchwork of different policies around Ontario, unjustifiably treating the most vulnerable students differently from one part of Ontario to the next. There is a pressing need for the Ontario Government to step into the gap, to protect students, and especially students with disabilities.
In an error which the AODA Alliance regrets, the survey was inadvertently not earlier sent to one board, the Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board, before this report was written. It has just done so, and will make public an addendum to this report if a response is received that alters the results expressed in this report. This error does not diminish this report’s findings or recommendations.
School Boards were asked (i) if it has a policy on when-and-how its school principals can refuse to admit a student to school, (ii) whether the Board tracks its principal’s use of this power, and (iii) how many students have been excluded from school. The AODA Alliance sent its survey to School Boards twice, once in 2019, and once in 2020. The Council of Directors of Education retained private legal counsel to get legal advice before responding to this survey.
(c) The Survey Revealed an Arbitrary Patchwork of Wildly Varying Local Requirements
Of Ontario’s 72 School Boards, only 33 Boards have been found to have a written policy or procedure on refusals to admit a student to school. Only 36 School Boards responded to the AODA Alliance’s survey. Of those, only 11 Boards gave the AODA Alliance their policy or procedure on refusals to admit.
Six School Boards told the AODA Alliance that they have no policy on refusals to admit. An extensive web search by the AODA Alliance revealed that another 22 School Boards have a written policy or procedure on this topic. In a number of cases, these were not easy to find. Taken together, a large number of Ontario School Boards revealed a troubling lack of openness and accountability on this subject.
This report’s analysis of the 33 policies or procedures on refusals to admit, as obtained by the AODA Alliance, revealed that there are wild variations between the written policies of School Boards across Ontario on excluding a student from school. Some are very short and say very little. Others are far more extensive and detailed.
As for safeguards for vulnerable students and their parents in the face of an exclusion from school, there are arbitrary and unjustified differences from Board to Board. Some Board policies have commendable and helpful ingredients that should be required of all School Boards. Some Board policies contain unfair and inappropriate ingredients that should be forbidden. For example, no Board should use a refusal to admit to facilitate a police investigation, or set an arbitrary time limit in advance for an appeal hearing from a refusal to admit, or give a student or their family an arbitrary time limit for presenting such an appeal.
There is no justification for such wild variations from Board to Board, from no policy, to policies that say very little, to substantially better policies. Every student facing an exclusion from school deserves fair procedures and effective safeguards. Every School Board should meet basic requirements of transparency and accountability in their use of this drastic power. No compelling policy objective is served by leaving each School Board to reinvent the wheel here.
(d) The Urgently Needed Solution: Action Now by the Ontario Government
This situation cries out for leadership on this issue by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. The failure of so many School Boards to even have a policy in this area, the unwillingness of so many School Boards to even answer questions about their policy on this issue, and the fact that policies are so hard to find on line combine to create a disturbing picture. For too much of Ontario, well-intentioned school principals are left to be a law unto themselves. The AODA Alliance expects that these hard-working and dedicated principals neither asked for this nor would like this situation to remain as is.
This issue has serious implications for students with disabilities. Refusals to admit a student to school disproportionately burden some students with disabilities.
The COVID-19 crisis escalates the urgency of this issue. When schools re-open this fall, there is a real risk that there could be a rash of more refusals to admit some students with disabilities to school. This threatens to be the way some overwhelmed and overburdened principals will cope with the stressful uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry of Education should head off this problem before it happens, by immediately directing School Boards to implement some basic and overdue requirements for refusals to admit a student to school. The Ministry should then develop a comprehensive and broader set of mandatory requirements for all School Boards when exercising the power to refuse to admit a student to school.
Examples of helpful requirements that the Ministry of Education should require, and that this report documents as now in place in one or more School Boards include the following:
- Refusals to admit should be recognized as an infringement of the student’s right to go to school to get an education, and as raising potential human rights issues, especially for students with disabilities. The Ontario Human Rights Code has primacy over the Education Act and the power to refuse to admit a student to school.
- A refusal to admit should only be imposed for a proper safety purpose. A student cannot be refused admission to school for purposes of discipline.
- Maximum time limits should be set for a refusal to admit, with a process for considering how to extend it if necessary and justified.
- A refusal to admit a student to school should only be permitted in very rare, extreme cases, as a last resort, after considering or trying all less intrusive alternatives. A principal should be required to take a step-by-step tiered approach to deciding whether to refuse to admit a student to school, first exhausting all less restrictive alternatives, and first ensuring that the student’s disability-related needs have been accommodated as required under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
- It should not be left to an individual principal to unilaterally decide on their own to refuse to admit a student to school. Prior approval of a higher authority with the School Board should be required, supported by sufficient documentation of the deliberations.
- A principal should be required to work with a student and their family on issues well before it degenerates to the point of considering a refusal to admit. The School Board should be required to have a mandatory meeting with the family before a refusal to admit is imposed.
- A principal should be required to immediately send a letter to the parents of a student whom they are refusing to admit to school, setting out the facts and specifics that are the reasons for the exclusion from school. A senior Board supervisor that approved the decision should be required to co-sign the letter. The letter should also be signed by the Director of Education if the student is to be excluded from all schools in the Board.
- A School Board that excludes a student from school should be required to put in place a plan for delivering an effective educational program to that student while excluded from school, including the option of face-to-face engagement with a teacher off of school property. This plan should be monitored to ensure it is sufficient.
- If a student is excluded from school, the School Board should be under a strong duty to work with the student and family to get them back to school as soon as possible.
- A School Board that excludes a student from school should be required to hold a re-entry meeting with the student and family to transition to the return to school.
- Any appeals to the Board of Trustees for the School Board from a refusal to admit should assure fair procedures to the student and their family. An excluded student should at least have all the safeguards in the appeal process as does a student who is subjected to discipline.
- The appeal should be heard by the entire Board of Trustees, and not just a sub-committee of some trustees. An appeal hearing should be held and decided quickly, since the student is languishing at home.
- A Board of Trustees, hearing an appeal from a refusal to admit, should consider whether the School Board has justified the student’s initial exclusion from school and its continuation. The burden should be on the School Board to justify the exclusion from school, and not on the student trying to go back to school. At an appeal hearing, the principal should first present why the exclusion from school is justified and should continue, before the student or parents are asked to show why the student should be allowed to return to school.
- When an appeal is launched, the School Board should be required to first try to resolve the issue short of a full appeal hearing.
- A student’s record of a refusal to admit to school should not stain the student’s official school record.
- If a School Board directs that a student can only come to school for part of the school day), the same safeguards for the student should be required as for a student who is excluded for the entire day.
- Any policy in this area should be periodically reviewed and updated.