Predicting death in your child’s school in 2023, part five | Marvin Zuker

By Marvin Zuker

Law360 Canada (January 26, 2023, 10:50 AM EST) --
Marvin Zuker
There continues to be increasingly loud alarms about children’s mental health. The effect of the pandemic and other stressors on youth mental health was devastating. All schools and every child should have access to a trained school counsellor. Another area where our government has failed. You are lucky if your school has a nurse.

Emotional health is necessary for learning to happen. And what about about social skills? Is your child having trouble making friends? More physical fighting and online harassment of peers? Violence and bullying?

Bullying, harassment

All schools must promote a nurturing school culture that promotes positive interpersonal and intergroup relations and respect for diversity among students and between students and staff. Schools should prevent bullying behaviour through:

  • Implementation of school-wide and classroom-based social and emotional learning strategies and positive approaches to discipline;
  • Age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention in each grade that is incorporated into the curriculum;
  • Creation of a school-wide and classroom climate that supports racial, cultural and other forms of diversity; and
  • Encouragement of parent participation in bullying behaviour prevention initiatives.

Everyone in the school community needs to understand what bullying is and the rules that prohibit such behaviour. Clarifying school-wide rules that prohibit bullying and discrimination on and off school property, and discouraging bystander behaviour (on-looking) are vitally important to helping students play a pivotal role in bullying prevention.

Vicious invective that was targeted at specific individuals and that employed deeply offensive and insulting words and images that, used here, contribute nothing to the marketplace of ideas (Chen v. Albany Unified Sch. Dist.). The court found that an off-school Instagram account with racist imaginary and comments targeting Black students was not protected by free speech. Judge Ronald M. Gould signed the majority opinion and wrote a concurrence warning of the dangers of “hate speech,” especially racial and anti-Semitic speech:

“Hate speech has no role in our society and contributes little or nothing to the free-flowing marketplace of ideas that is essential to protect in a school environment,” Gould said.

How about promoting respect with a Bully Prevention Month, No Name Calling Week or through projects like Not in Our School or No Place for Hate Assembles once a year or the odd notification is totally inadequate, to say the least.

We have to make our schools hubs of hope for our communities by providing adult literacy programs and solutions for food insecurity, homelessness, the availability of shelters and unemployment so that our children don’t have to look to the streets and violent means to meet their needs. Solving our school violence means dealing with school climate and culture to ensure students have a sense of belonging wherever they may be.

Our schools have become places where all students are not empowered to be their authentic selves. They’re forced to code switch to feel welcome or worthy to be in that environment. And the act of changing how you walk, talk, or dress — changing who you are — just to feel that you belong can be exhausting. Some students skip or drop out of school to find other avenues of acceptance. They’re more likely to join a gang, commit senseless acts of violence, murder, or find a job that undervalues their labour, and this only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and struggle.

Now more than ever, our children need to be taught how to dream and reach those dreams, how to see the humanity in each other, and how to navigate conflict using empathy and intellect rather than violence.

Every student deserves the opportunity to graduate from high school and go to college. He/she deserves to become a parent and leave their own legacy. They deserve to live. Deaths of our students often do not make news headlines or prompt any legislation to make widespread change.

Our response to school violence has become somewhat predictable. We are horrified. We hold memorials, we fundraise. Politicians may or may not send thoughts and prayers. Then, we move on to the next story. But for the survivors and their schools this is just the beginning in their painful journey through the trauma, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

We need change in our under-resourced schools, so we are better equipped to care for the mental well-being of our students. Few schools have social workers and psychologists, and teachers are increasingly called on to fill in the gaps. We also need trauma counselling and support services for teachers and school staff. If we’re not caring for ourselves and each other, who will care for our children?

We need change in the way we care for our communities. They need additional funding to provide after-school programs for students, community outreach programs for students and families, and mental health services for students, families, teachers and staff. 

We need change in our leadership and legislation. Our political leaders must prioritize lives and well-being. It’s time to put the safety of children and schools first. As educators, and community members, we all have unfinished work. There are so many things we can do. We have the means. We have the hope. We must have the resolve.

This is the final instalment of a five-part series. Part one: Predicting death in your child’s school in 2023: March for our lives. Part two: Predicting death in your child’s school in 2023, part two. Part three: Predicting death in your child’s school in 2023, part three. Part four: Predicting death in your child’s school in 2023, part four.

Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, 
The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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