The hostile halls of learning

Toba Korenblum May 26 1980

The hostile halls of learning

Toba Korenblum May 26 1980

The hostile halls of learning


Toba Korenblum

In many ways school is society’s looking glass. Less than a generation ago a glimpse, more often than not, revealed polished apples, polished shoes and polished homilies. Honor thy father, mother, teacher and the holy degree read the classroom catechism. Today, Canadian schools mirror the frustration of their charges. In a strangled economy, education is no longer the ticket to success—the golden rule has lost its aura. And one result is that vandalism and violence have turned the phrase “school of hard knocks” into a literal reality. Now, as the school year draws to a close, a debate that seemed to get lost in polemics over whom to blame—the rebellious adolescent, an unresponsive school system, the decaying family unit, a valueless society—is beginning to focus on a question much more to the point: what is to be done about it?

Canadian high schools have come a long way from the red-brick, one-room schoolhouse—such a long way that mounting vandalism costs alone are estimated at $50 million a year. For the most part affluent, impersonal, massive institutions, schools are vulnerable targets, full of expensive, easily damaged equipment. The destruction can be on a major scale, like this year’s more than $2-million fire set by student arsonists at North Bay, Ontario’s Chippewa Secondary School; or the $1.40-per-pupil cost for glass breakage at schools in Flin Flon, Manitoba. And although more rare, cases of physical assault on staff are increasing. A 17-year-old Brampton, Ont., student who got into a classroom scuffle with geography instructor George Tanner and broke his nose is now serving a six-month jail term, upheld in March by the Ontario Court of Appeal. Surveys last year by teachers’ federations in New Brunswick and North York, Ont., report a disturbing incidence of verbal abuse and threats, with assaults on just over one per cent of sampled staff. In one episode in New Brunswick during the 1977-78 school season, a student retaliated against discipline from a principal by attacking his child with a knife; in another, the RCMP were called after a mother and child both assaulted a principal who had earlier disciplined the student.

So far, responses to vandalism and violence have ranged from the symptomatic to the diagnostic; from those who

seek to medicate a festering wound quickly with a strong antiseptic to those eager to examine and treat the root causes of the condition. Many boards, resigning themselves to the belief that vandalism is an unalterable fact of life, are retrenching, and some schools are beginning to resemble de-

tention centres: costly glass panes in many urban classrooms have been replaced with bricks or enamelled steel sheeting, like those favored by several Hamilton schools. Security guards patrol schools throughout the country, including facilities in Prince Edward Island and the Yukon. School boards in cities like North York, Calgary and Burnaby, B.C., have hired full-time security directors. Sault Ste Marie, Ont., residents co-operate with the police department in operating a neighborhood watch program called Operation Vigilance, while Vancouver police have put plainclothes officers right in Oak Ridge area schools to act as community liaisons. And, increasingly, institutions are buying protection in the form of sophisticated surveillance hardware, like the electronic detection system installed by the Edmonton public school board.

Meanwhile, some teachers are flexing their muscles in what they view as a battle to protect their authority against unbridled pupils. On this turf, disciplinarians clash with libertarians. “I don’t think there’s enough discipline in society, or our schools,” says Brampton assault victim Tanner, who is on sick leave with his broken nose and so shaken by the experience that he may not return to teaching. “People aren’t willing to stand up for principles the way they used to. Today, it’s do as you please. If a kid swears at a teacher he’s not supposed to get riled. Well I don’t see why we should have to put up with that. We have basic human rights too.” Lay charges, urges the former policeman. Suspend unruly students, jail offenders and crack down on the laissez-faire

atmosphere in the schools.

That philosophy is being echoed by many teachers who bemoan the loss of traditional Judeo-Christian values: respect for authority, property and hard work. Their concern is reflected in the large number of reports commissioned by school boards, education ministries and teachers’ associations in recent years to examine vandalism, violence and discipline. The Montreal Catholic School Commission, in conjunction with its English-speaking teachers, drafted a tough disciplinary code last fall which advocates, among other things, inschool suspension—a form of ostracism for insubordinate students who work on lessons in isolated classrooms. Highschool teachers in North York, in their 1979 survey, call for separate schools for unmanageable pupils and voluntary transfers, or negotiated “recovery” leave, for victims of “battered-teacher syndrome”—a severe psychological problem reported with regularity by teachers in tough U.S. schools and just beginning to surface in Canada.

With this almost warlike footing, the idealism of 1960s educators seems to be dissipating. Along with the “backlash” to the basics, there appears to be a pal-

pable swing away from the permissiveness of the ’60s and the apathy of the ’70s to the Spartanism of the ’80s. Bob Dean, the new no-nonsense principal of Edmonton’s inner-city Victoria Composite High School, is a self-confessed hard-liner who credits his “severe policy of restrictions and sanctions” for curbing vandalism and violence. This school year, a teen-age loiterer wrestled down a teacher and punctured his knee with a knife. In another incident, three male students have been charged with taking four girls to an apartment at lunch hour and raping them. “I want to get these kids’ respect rather than their admiration and love,” says Dean. “Kids

like you to be honest with them. If I set a policy, damn it, that’s the way I want it done.”

Dalhousie University education Professor Edgar Friedenberg is frankly appalled by any discussion of classroom constraint. Like many a school reformer and activist of the ’60s, he blames a repressive education system which is indifferent to the emotional development of its students. “It’s gross chutzpah to talk about violence as if the children were the perpetrators rather than the victims,” says the author of the new book, Deference to Authority. Students are justifiably railing against a system that renders them politically powerless, he says. In that case, to be self-assertive, or even violent, may be less of a social evil than the passivity Canadian schools foster. “I’m not that concerned about the safety of people in the coercion business. You take your chances,” he snaps. “And, I don’t feel sorry if the victim bites back occasionally.”

For those like Friedenberg who prefer to “depathologize” vandalism and

even violence, to view them as manifestations of an adolescent phase, judicial retribution serves little purpose. Anthony Doob, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre of Criminology, is one of a minority that sees little justification in labelling most forms of vandalism as deviant. “Kids do things as a way of learning about their environment, or testing limits,” he explains, “and it probably won’t do any good to get tough at the court disposition end.” That viewpoint will likely influence his recommendations as research director of the Ontario Task Force on Vandalism, which is due to report in December.

Still, for many educators and administrators—even those who wince at stridently autocratic resolutions to the situation-some form of legislative recognition of their authority is essential. The Canadian Teachers’ Federation, although not lobbying for corporal punishment, is concerned about a current private member’s bill to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which sanctions teachers and parents “using force by way of correction” if “the force used does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.” While the incidence of civil suits against teachers in Canada is rare compared to the United States, a teacher in St. George, New Brunswick, who was found guilty of striking a student, failed to win an appeal this March. In British Columbia, the sole province where corporal punishment has been specifically forbidden, the teachers’ federation has reported that without this legislative protection there has been an increase in the number of charges and complaints against staff for alleged assault of pupils.

In an effort to control a major source of vandalism and violence—unemployed young loiterers—an Ontario task force on intruders in schools last year recommended arrest and a $2,000 fine for trespassers. That kind of legislative brawn is welcomed by administrators like AÍ Rogers, vice-principal of Morning Star Secondary School in Mississauga. A teen-age loiterer attacked him with a screwdriver in a school corridor in 1978, and to Rogers’ dismay assault charges were dropped and a “minimal” fine of $200 imposed. In cases of vandalism, the Alberta Education Act provides that schools take students to small claims or criminal court to recover damages.

At the heart of the vandalism-violence controversy is a long-standing pedagogical debate: should schools be expected to cope with the emotional wellbeing of their students as well as the intellectual? Many educators just throw up their hands in the face of social and economic conditions—family breakdown, drugs, child abuse, declining school enrolment, cutbacks and youth employment. “We shouldn’t have to run a social agency on top of an educational system,” says no-nonsense principal Dean.

Counters Norman Goble, a former Ottawa high-school teacher, now secretary-general of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation: “You can’t just shut your doors on these kids and say, ‘Look we’re just here to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.’ That’s too much of a copout. The school has a role to play in making people competent to lead a responsible, adult life.”

While some school boards are content to solve the problem of vandalism with cosmetic solutions such as graffiti-resistant vinyl wall-coverings and plasticcoated windows, and still others turn to harsh disciplinary codes and judicial retribution, a few schools are starting to be more positively creative—introducing anti-vandalism incentive programs,

life-skills classes and values education. The board of education in Lakehead, Ont., adopted a program this year called PRIDE (Pupils Responsible in Determining Their Own Environment). Students are financially rewarded if their schools reduce vandalism costs. The board also runs a program called Operation Aware, for Grades 5 and 6 pupils, which examines topics such as peer pressure and vandalism. It has been demonstrated many times that fostering student initiative and responsibility cuts down on frustration and, consequently, rowdyism. A 1976 Alberta department

of education report, for example, found that schools reporting low vandalism rates also reported strong student councils, an emphasis on shared responsibility, parental involvement and permissive rules and regulations.

Ultimately, long-range solutions may force a more thorough examination of

school milieu and staff-student rapport. Kids these days are less likely to view their teachers as idols. Instead, they consider them rivals or authoritarian figureheads while teachers, straining under large class loads, are often lucky if they can learn their pupils’ names by midterm. “The atmosphere in the high schools, with all the good intentions in the world, is very cold and impersonal,” says Joan Pavelko, president of the Federation of English-speaking Catholic Teachers of Montreal. “As long as you’re dealing with 2,000 students in huge, monstrous buildings, it’s going to be that way. There’s a feeling of hopelessness, of isolation, a feeling that we’ll never arrive at a real answer and the best we can do is Band-Aid solutions like preventing or punishing the obvious cases.” Peter McLaren, author of Cries From the Corridor—a recently released book chronicling his frustrations as a teacher in North York’s Jane-Finch zone—looks beyond the school walls to describe the rage, racism and ennui experienced by “suburban ghetto” pupils. “Vandalism reflects the diseases of our society,” he says, “a society that doesn’t have much to offer kids to express their dignity and self-worth.”

Paula Sypnowich, student council president at Toronto’s inner-city Jarvis Collegiate Institute, believes that the solution depends heavily on improved teacher morale. “Right now it’s so low. The attitude seems to be, T don’t owe these students anything.’ I get the feeling that some of them don’t even like children. The result is that the student is frustrated and even uncomfortable. I’ve never seen such rivalry and hostility, particularly in the lower grades.” Vancouver community health nurse Grace Doherty suggests that staff training should be strengthened to emphasize child development studies. “The teacher has to understand the amount of struggle these kids are going through as adolescents. It’s a volatile stage. Just look at the violence directed toward the self, in the form of suicide, z or a more subdued violence like drugs.” Ï While few would relish a return to the I days of the hickory stick, there is a nos£ talgia for the type of school that reflects d a sense of kinship, a pride of member| ship. The challenge today is to kindle a I feeling of self-worth and citizenship in modern institutions which have operated on the premise that it is enough to feed the mind without the spirit. “We’ve lost our sense of community,” says principal Kenneth Hills, chairman of Ontario’s committee on school trespassers. “Schools don’t belong to anybody any more. So you can kick them, spit on them, and write anything you want on them. Maybe we’ve just forgotten about human rights. We have to find the courage to examine those values.”