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Supreme Court takes strap out of teachers' hands

Edmonton Journal, January 31, 2004

EDMONTON - Fifteen Alberta school boards that still allow use of the strap will have to change their policies after the Supreme Court of Canada ruling Friday that prohibits corporal punishment in schools.

By a 6-3 margin, the court upheld the Criminal Code defence -- widely known as the "spanking law" -- that allows parents to use "reasonable force" by way of correction.

But teachers, who have the same protection from assault charges as parents under the Criminal Code, should be more restricted, the court ruled.

"Contemporary social consensus is that, while teachers may sometimes use corrective force to remove children from classrooms or secure compliance with instructions, the use of corporal punishment by teachers is not acceptable," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote.

To Renee Kshyk, the ban on the strap is long overdue.

"I don't believe I will have to deal with the strap at my son's school again," Kshyk said after hearing the ruling.

But to Shauna Harakal, the decision means schools will no longer be able to control some students.

"This is scary," Harakal said. "The parents around here had better get together and see what a guy can do."

Harakal lives in Warburg, a village 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton that is part of the Black Gold school division. Black Gold is one of about 15 Alberta school boards that -- before Friday's ruling -- had policies allowing corporal punishment.

Edmonton's public and Catholic boards banned corporal punishment in 1990. more than 30 other boards have similar bans, and a handful have no policies on the issue.

Kshyk has been fighting Black Gold's policy since last fall, when she was shocked to hear her eight-year-old son had been threatened with the strap for his part in a fight involving five boys at Warburg School.

Harakal favours the strap because she says her daughter, who attends the same school, is the target of a bully who has been hard to control.

The school hasn't used the strap once during the two years Wayne Martel has been principal. But Harakal thinks its mere presence acts as a deterrent.

Black Gold superintendent John Bole said the school division won't have to change its policy, despite the court decision. He said the board leaves it up to individual schools to decide on punishments -- with the added requirement that they follow the law.

"I don't think this will make any difference to the policy," Bole said.

Black Gold will review the court ruling and tell school councils about it, he said.

At least eight provinces and territories have already banned corporal punishment. But Alberta's School Act is silent on the issue.

Josepha Vanderstoop, speaking for Alberta Learning, said there's no need for the province to change its law, since there is nothing in it that conflicts with Friday's ruling.

But the government will make sure school boards know about the court decision, Vanderstoop said.

"Schools should seek guidance from their school boards."

Learning Minister Lyle Oberg was away and unavailable for comment.

Bole said Black Gold board has left it up to schools to decide on corporate punishment because it believes in site-based decision making. He said the Edmonton public board's decision to ban corporal punishment is "interesting," given it supports site-based decisions.

"The district has recognized for a long time that corporal punishment is inappropriate," said Victor Tanti, spokesman for the Edmonton board. "We have site-based when it makes sense."

Some private schools in Edmonton have allowed the use of the strap, among them Meadowlark Christian school.

Principal Laurie Barnstable said she accepts the court decision, even though the strap has been effective at correcting behaviour.

"It has been done always in collaboration with the family," Barnstable said.

In her 10 years, the school has used the strap just three times, she said. "It's not something you take and wave around to scare the kids with."

Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said he expects school boards with policies allowing for the strap will reconsider them.

Teachers are glad the court recognizes the need for them to use "coercive force" sometimes to restrain unruly students, such as in breaking up fights, Bruseker said.

Copyright 2004 Edmonton Journal

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