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Posts from 2008 - 2009

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A Response to "Panic in the Blackboard Jungle" - by Jeff Kugler, January 14, 2008

I just read Margaret Wente’s response to the Final Report on School Safety: “Panic in the Blackboard Jungle” (The Globe and Mail, 12/01/08, Page A23). I find it so interesting that she is so quick to condemn the entire Report based, it seems, solely on her identification of the Panel’s Chair, Julian Falconer, as “a familiar face from the race and social justice set”.

Instead of examining the possibility that the Panel found out some important information on school safety, and the possibility that the Panel’s recommendations may, in fact, help to create a school system that is healthier, fairer and yes, safer, Ms. Wente can only condemn the report because of her own bias, it seems, against the notions of the value of social justice.

The panel on School Safety engaged in what can only be described as a thorough and comprehensive examination of the situation at the Toronto District School Board with regard to school safety. This examination necessarily led the Panel to look at other factors connected to creating safer and healthier schools.

I was a Principal for many years in the Toronto District School Board, and have worked in “marginalized” and “racialized” communities. (By the way, for people who live and work in these communities “marginalized” and “racialized” are not terms used in order to be politically correct, as Ms. Wente would have people believe but, rather, terms which reflect the day-to-day reality of living and working in those communities.) The TDSB is not responsible for creating the huge social issues in our society connected to racism, sexism and classism. The TDSB is, however, responsible for how it responds to those issues within its schools. What the Final Report on School Safety does, in fact, is challenge the TDSB to act on its Equity Foundation Statement and Policy, one of the best such policies in North America. At the Press Conference at the TDSB on Thursday, January 10th, the Director of Education, Gerry Connelly, responded to the Report by saying that the TDSB always uses an equity lens in all the decisions it makes. This assertion is simply not true! If the TDSB had an equity practice in the forefront of its work, most of the recommendations of the Panel on School Safety would be redundant and unnecessary.

Unlike Ms. Wente’s analysis, there are huge social issues in our schools that are very complex in nature, and which cannot, in any way, be simplified by pointing the finger and allowing readers to think that school problems are caused by single parent families, poor parenting, a particular group of Jamaican youth, etc. The problems of student disengagement are not connected to a particular kind of family structure, to a particular section of the city, or a particular cultural or racial group.
Schools need to learn how to connect to their students and their lives. Schools need to validate the experiences that students bring to school from their homes, families and cultures. Students need not be expected to leave their identity at the door of the school building when they enter. The TDSB Student Census Ms. Wente speaks of in her column talks of a student body that has fundamentally changed over the last years. The former minority is now the majority in our schools, and – generally – what goes on in schools and in classrooms has not changed to reflect this huge demographic shift. In the TDSB Census, students speak clearly of how their culture or the culture of others is rarely taught or talked about at school; they think they would connect better to school if it was taught and talked about. The recommendations in the Report about providing anti-racist training for all staff, about teachers needing to reflect the students in their classes, and the implementation of a thorough curriculum reform based on the Equity Foundation Statement will all go a long way towards creating school spaces that are inclusive and safe.

The problem is not the Report or its recommendations. The problem is the implementation of the recommendations. We have not yet heard encouraging comments from either the TDSB or the Minister of Education in embracing this call for the fundamental changes necessary to making a difference. It is now the responsibility of all Toronto citizens who wish to create safe and equitable learning spaces for our young people to work together to pressure for a sincere and systematic implementation of these recommendations. The young people of Toronto deserve nothing less. 

Gender and Violence in Schools – by Dominique Rivière, January 17, 2008

I read the Executive Summary of the School and Community Safety Advisory Panel’s final report with much interest and optimism. Despite some of the report’s troubling findings (e.g. the number of undetected weapons, especially guns, in TDSB schools), I was glad to see that it emphasized the need to focus on the systemic roots of violence in schools, and refused to rely on simplistic, short-term, reactive solutions to this problem.

I was particularly glad about the inclusion of a section on gender and school safety. The Toronto Star (January 11, 2008, p. A1) excerpted part of the report on sexual violence in schools, which includes the following passage:

“… the majority of work on school safety tends to use a gender-neutral approach, and concentrates most of its efforts towards the types of violence […] primarily between male students. As such, ‘guns and gangs’ concerns receive a disproportionate amount of attention, funding and intervention as compared to the types of violence that young women experience, including the gendered violence, such as the sexual exploitation of women, associated with gang activities.”

While I was thrilled to see the Panel highlight the gendered – and sexualized – dimension of school violence, I was concerned by the conflation “gender” with “female”. This is a fairly common occurrence: social difference is conventionally perceived as something that only applies to marginalized people. For example, only Black people “have” race, only queer people “have” sexuality and, as in this case, only women “have” gender. While I think this is an understandable outcome of taking seriously the discrimination that marginalized groups face in their everyday lives, taking only this perspective reinforces the idea that dominant groups are natural, or normal, and neutral. This is not the case: White people do “have” race, straight people do “have” sexuality, and males do “have” gender.

With respect to the School Safety Report, then, framing gender-based violence in schools only as male violence against females almost normalizes male violence against other men (it also doesn’t consider the gendered aspects of female violence against other females). Thus, in addition to focusing on the former, attention must also be paid to the gendered dimensions of male-on-male violence. Doing so will force us to take a critical look at how we think, talk and educate boys about masculinity, and about what it means to be a man.

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