An amendment to the provincial Schools Act, now making its way in the House of Assembly, will offer a new tool for administrators for handling cases when a student’s presence at a school is considered to be of harm to students and staff.
That includes a situation where there is a risk to the student in question.
It would essentially be a new option, standing in contrast to a suspension or expulsion.
The new option for administrators would legally remove the student from the school environment, but is not to be considered punitive in any way, according to Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Al Hawkins.
“Such decisions will never be taken lightly and will be made with a thorough understanding of the specific situation and in broad consultation with the school administrators, teachers and other people connected to the specific situation,” he said at a news conference on the proposed change held at the Confederation Building Tuesday.
When a student is kept out, there will be a requirement to continue to provide access to the same educational curriculum. The student may be moved to another school, or offered home-based schooling.
The proposed amendment to the act — given second reading in the House of Assembly Tuesday afternoon — does not spell out the exact circumstances whereby a child could, or would, be removed. That level of detail will come in the policies still to be developed by the English and French-language school districts.
Practically speaking, the legislation requires the decision to remove a student to be made by the directors of education and CEO at the district level, not any individual principal. The idea is to avoid community pressures and assure consistency in decisions.
“It will enable us to keep all students and staff safe,” said Lucy Warren, associate director of education, who is responsible for programs and operations at the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.
Warren said she expects the measure would be used rarely, only in “extreme circumstances.” At the same time, she expected it could be at least once a year.
“We have things (that) generally they involve violence outside of school, we could have weapons outside, that occur outside of school in the community over the weekend. We could have threats against students or staff that occur outside of school,” she said.
She said in such cases immediate actions are taken, including the development of case-specific safety plans for a school, but the ability to keep a student out of the school environment is another matter.
It became an issue back in February, when students and parents of students at Stephenville High School protested the presence of a student accused of sexual assault. In that case, the student was ultimately kept home. The minister and other officials would not speak about any further specifics from that case Tuesday.
The president of the teachers’ association spoke in general support of the new Schools Act.
“The reality is that, yes, every student absolutely has a right to the highest quality of education possible, but there’s also responsibility in tune with that to make sure that environment is safe and comfortable for all concerned as well,” Dean Ingram said.
Ingram said he is also looking forward to further discussion on the related policies, required between now and the start of the next K-12 school year.
“Creating a safe, inclusive and accepting environment is our priority to ensure student achievement and well-being,” Kim Christianson, with the Conseil scolaire francophone provincial de Terre Neuve et Labrador, said in a statement on the change. “The (board) will be proposing further recommendations requiring additional amendments to the Schools Act.”
This is part of a broader review of the act the government is working on, with one department official suggesting it could take another six to eight months to complete.
The minister said it would be premature to commit to any introduction of a new Schools Act this year.
Hawkins is carrying more than one portfolio at this point, having taken over responsibilities in K-12 education from Dale Kirby, who was removed from his ministerial post on the heels of a complaint relating to bullying and harassment, with an investigation by the commissioner for legislative standards requested.
There is no timeline on results from that investigation, making it unclear whether or not Kirby would be back between now and the time any further changes to the Schools Act are considered.