29 MAY 2001

Canadian `strict discipline' projects aim to help expelled youth get back into the classroom

A passion for not writing kids off 

Not so long ago, and not so far away, a Grade 7 girl who'd never been in trouble before pulled out a gun. She then pointed it, directly, at a group of students. She was charged, suspended from school, and sent to CAPSS the Community Alternative Program for Suspended Students.

Staff at the Etobicoke-based program were told what she'd done. Their task was to figure out why it happened and prevent it from happening again. And so they started, quite simply, by asking the youngster what happened. Turns out that a group of kids had been harassing her, daily, before and after school. They had been phoning her at home, repeatedly, with the same ominous threat.

``That they were going to rape her, her mother and her grandmother,'' says Lynn Zammit, then part of the original CAPSS team. ``She'd pulled out the gun while scared and said: `Get away from me! Back off!'''

There were, in this case, extenuating circumstances, yet the young girl had to learn that packing a gun carries very serious consequences. Staff taught her there are other ways to resolve conflicts and worked with the school to keep the harassers at bay when she returned to class.

Should the same incident occur this September, there might be a very different outcome. Under the Safe Schools Act and its related Code of Conduct, the young girl could be expelled for a year. Though there are provisions for appeal, using a weapon to cause or threaten bodily harm brings a mandatory one-year expulsion.

Of course, not every incident is a case of a good kid caught in bad circumstances. There will always be young men and women in serious need of guidance, discipline and help.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Janet Ecker revealed how those will be delivered. The province has selected seven ``strict discipline'' projects that will be up and running by fall. Expelled students who wish to return to the public school system will have to first attend one of these rehabilitative projects. ``Strict discipline programs give fully expelled students access to the help they need to turn their lives around,'' said Ecker.

Lynn Zammit will oversee one of those projects for the Waterloo Region District School Board and the Waterloo Education Foundation. It will have a curriculum similar to the CAPSS program she helped develop in the early '90s. And, with luck, may share its track record.

``Consistently, about eight per cent of our group every year goes back to school and gets one more long-term suspension,'' says Zammit. ``In the justice system, the recidivism rate is around 70 per cent.''

Pretty good odds. And a unique approach, for it's not punishment-based.

``(Our society) has tended to gravitate toward a justice-based punishment model. But when you look at the results it doesn't work,'' she says. ``Punishment is not going to solve the problem.''

Zammit has seen that, repeatedly, since she began working with at-risk students at Lakeshore Collegiate in 1989. These were the Lakeshore kids who chronically skipped classes, lashed out, got in trouble with the law. Some had learning disabilities or undiagnosed mental illness; without exception, their sense of worth was lost in some dark abyss.

``They tended to accept failure as just a given in life. In their minds, everyone had written them off, so we focussed on small accomplishments to begin with,'' she says.

Some of those accomplishments, to an outsider, might appear very small. But, with encouragement and confidence-building, many of them started to do something they hadn't in the past: to try. Emphasis was also placed on listening, on trying to determine why students weren't doing well with certain subjects. Zammit was often surprised by what she heard.

``If the kid hasn't had a place to sleep for the past week, well, math isn't high on the priority list.''

As this little program grew, Zammit forged ties with community agencies beyond the school walls. Those groups understood that they, too, had a vested interest in how these kids turned out. Equally important, the kids quickly realized there were others who cared about their future.

Before long, the vast majority of the so-called ``bad'' kids were making good (or at least a whole lot better). Marks were improving, scraps were declining, chips were falling off shoulders. Something was working.

Then, in the early '90s, the big leagues called.

The school board was developing an alternative program for kids who'd been suspended from school. Its goal was to get to the root of the problem within the suspension period of six to 20 days and try to reduce the odds the student would get in trouble again.

Zammit applied. Soon, she was working with a team of three others (an elementary teacher, a child and youth worker ,and a part-time psychiatrist), and the suspension program that would eventually be known as CAPSS was born.

In addition to the regular three `R's, there was work on rehabilitation, restitution, responsibility. The unique curriculum also included exercises designed to teach anger management, conflict resolution, communication skills and problem solving. All that, plus a healthy dose of reality.

``We emphasize that it's all about choices,'' says Zammit. Choices like whether to succumb to peer pressure and join a gang. Decisions like whether you throw the first punch or walk away. Lessons that emphasize actions have consequences.

But, like that Lakeshore program, CAPSS offers something often absent from these students' lives: the reinforcement that they have worth. ``We're looking at the student from the point of view of strength,'' says Vlad Kovac, a teacher/counsellor at CAPSS. ``There are enough programs out there that tell you what you don't have, or what you're failing at.''

And so, on a recent day at CAPSS, two young suspended students were taking part in some problem-solving exercises. Not as in ``What's the square root of 121,'' but a challenge involving skill, ropes and a bull ring.

Five lengths of rope were attached to the horizontal ring's outer edges; on top balanced a baseball. The students, plus three instructors (one blindfolded), each grabbed a rope end. Then it was up to the students to direct how they'd lift those ropes in unison, keep the ball balanced, and walk to the other end of the building. (A task that requires patient guidance to the person with the blindfold).

At first, one of the students was impatient bossing around the `blind' person and expressing frustration when she didn't immediately follow his confusing orders. He soon realized, however, that this was not the key to solving the problem. When he offered his directions clearly and calmly, things went smoother.

And that was a big step for this particular Grade 8 student, now on something like his fifteenth suspension for violent behaviour. The kid is often teased for being either fat or mentally slow. Large, this boy is; dim, he is not. ``He's gifted. He's got an IQ of around 150,'' says Kovac. ``But he's learning disabled. He's not able to write. So you've got a kid who's gifted, learning disabled, and he's obese. But he's a real likeable kid. He should be a potential leader.''

`It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop.'

During the course of this exercise, some of those inherent leadership skills begin to emerge. The student realizes he's in control of events that his decisions have a direct bearing on the outcome. A light bulb goes on as he notices a saying one of many pasted to the wall.

``I just saw something on the wall that's related to this,'' he says. ``It says: `It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop.'''

Which is not a bad lesson for a learning-disabled kid who often gets teased for failing a grade. There are other sayings on the walls at CAPSS, many from students who've been through the program. One student wrote: ``I learned ways to avoid problems before they start up. What I mean is looking at the root of the problem and stopping it before it happens.''

That's the kind of education, say authorities on at-risk youth, that the criminal justice system rarely provides.

``A punishment-only paradigm is fear-based,'' says Dr. Fred Mathews, director of research with Central Toronto Youth Services. ``Whereas a discipline and rehabilitation approach is hope-based: It allows us to give the young person the tools and skills to act positively in their environment.''

Yet it's not always society's first choice.

``Society doesn't seem to tolerate perceived weaknesses, perceived failures, very well,'' says Arthur Lockhart, professor of justice studies with Humber College. ``So when it comes to kids who have messed up, we're very quick to admonish and punish. And there is absolutely no evidence at all that punishment and retribution are going to change someone's behaviour. There are mounds of evidence to support the exact opposite.''

Zammit has known that seen that for years. It fuels her enthusiasm for the Waterloo project that starts this fall.

Her optimism, however is tinged. She has sensed a shift in Ontario's education system of late. There's a new language in the schools these days: The language of the law. ``When I started, the school systems and justice systems were separated,'' she says. ``Now, a schoolyard fight is called an assault. Taking the Grade 9 lunch money is now being called extortion. And if the Grade 9 feels threatened, all of a sudden it's robbery.''

The implication, of course, is that more students will face long-term expulsion starting this fall along with additional charges from the criminal justice system. It's what Zammit calls a ``double whammy.''

Some of those students will be very disturbed youth in need of rehabilitation. But some will be like that Grade 7 girl with the gun. Or like the other kids who've gone through a short stint in CAPSS never to get in serious trouble again.

``Probably 90 per cent of the kids we've had in CAPSS, under the new law, would be expelled,'' she says. They will, however, have the option of innovative programs run by innovative people.

``I have this passion,'' she explains, ``for not writing kids off.''


Scott Simmie, Feature writer 


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