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The School to Prison Pipeline: An Analysis on Systemic Racism with Ontario School Boards

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Policy Brief by Anson Shen

This opinion piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.


In light of the Black Lives Matter movement prominently in the US, it is imperative to recognize and examine the similar issues happening in Canada. More specifically, ways the Ontario education system has disappointed racial minority students through disproportionate impacts of disciplinary policies. In 2001, the Ontario Education Minister at the time implemented a Safe Schools Act that set out “zero tolerance for bad behaviour” which gave teachers and principals more authority to suspend and expel students (1). This new zero-tolerance policy created a disproportionate impact on students of the racial minority (2). Harsh penalties such as suspension and expulsion often contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. After many complaints, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, passed the Education Amendment Act in 2007, Bill 212, which involves a gentler approach in dealing with troubled kids (3). The new act was a step towards addressing concerns that the Safe Schools Act created.


Since the abolition of the ‘zero-tolerance’ school policies in the Ontario Safe Schools Act, many solutions have been implemented to limit disproportionate impacts of discipline on students of a visible minority, specifically Black students (4). Although Bill 212 demonstrates a positive change of discipline in education, recent statistics do not prove for the amended act to be an effective permanent solution. Many Black students have spoken out on their experience with rampant microaggressions and biases from teachers (5). In a 2017 study done by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), statistics reveal that 48% of the 307 students expelled from Toronto public schools over a five year period were Black, but make up only 12% of the school population (6). These statistics are one of the few studies provided by school boards and the Ministry of Education in Ontario. There is a lack of research and statistics available on the rates of suspension and expulsion by race. A report done by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that Ontario school boards did not think it was important to collect statistics on the race of students who were expelled and suspended (7). However, statistics are necessary to understand the impact of discipline in schools and whether there is a disproportionate impact on racial minority students. Regardless of the absence of statistical evidence, empirical evidence is abundant towards systemic racism within Ontario’s education system. Here are just a few of the anecdotes:

  1. “Two Black female students were suspended for possessing weapons after they brought nail files to school” (8)

  2. “A Black male student who was accused of stealing money was handcuffed by the police and led out of the school in front of other students, even though the alleged offence (theft) was non-violent” (9)

  3. “A 14-year-old Black student with an intellectual disability was suspended after a teacher was hit by an object in a darkened classroom during the showing of a film. He was questioned by the vice-principal for one and a half hours without his parents being present. The police were called, but he was not charged because of a lack of evidence. He took a lie detector test and passed it. Nevertheless, the school expelled him for almost three months” (10)


Within the same report, the OHRC provided a list of ten recommendations for the school boards to reduce the disproportionate impact of disciplinary policies summed by individuals who are knowledgeable about school discipline and the impact of these policies on racial minority students (11). Although a few of the recommendations have been addressed, racism does not cease to exist. Late February 2020, the Toronto Youth Cabinet called for change towards Doug Ford to address the systemic, anti-Black, brown and Indigenous racism within Ontario’s education system (12).

The TYC called for action on four recommendations

  1. “For the Ontario Ministry of Education to reform the K-12 curriculum to include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations on education and the history and contributions of Black Canadians,

  2. For all Ontario school boards to collect disaggregated race-based data by 2021,

  3. To end the process of streaming, the practice of grouping students by ability that leads to Black students being placed in non-academic courses, by 2023,

  4. And to immediately remove police or “resource” officers from daily posts in Ontario schools” (13).

In regards to TYC’s first recommendation, in 2018, after Premier Ford’s government was elected, the Ontario Ministry of Education removed a curriculum-writing project that would have included sessions on Indigenous education (14). Over 45,000 individuals signed on a petition to support the TYC’s recommendations with the belief that true change must begin within the institutions and governments (15).

Unfair disciplinary action upon students detrimentally affects their learning opportunity. Once students face expulsion, it is difficult for them to succeed in the education system due to the long process of integration afterwards. Increased suspension of students leads to “negative psychological impact, loss of educational opportunities, higher dropout rates, increased criminalization and anti-social behaviour”, which catches students in a pipeline to prison (16). We must listen to the students pushing out for change.

“Until the system values black students’ futures as much as others, change is needed” (17).

  1. K.Bhattacharjee, “The Ontario Safe Schools Act: School Discipline and Discrimination,” Ontario Human Rights Commission, July 2003, discipline_and_discrimination.pdf.

  2. Ibid.

  3. “Ontario agrees to end zero-tolerance school policy”, CBC News, April 13, 2007,

  4. K. Bhattacharjee, “The Ontario Safe Schools Act”.

  5. Sherina Harris, “Black Students Still Face ‘Toxic’ Racism Despite Decades Of ‘Solutions’ In Ontario”, Huf ington Post, September 2, 2020,

  6. S. Zheng and S. De Jesus, “Expulsion Decision-Making Process and Expelled Students’ Transition Experience in the Toronto District School Board’s Caring and Safe Schools Programs and Their Graduation Outcomes,” Toronto District School Board, April 2017,

  7. K. Bhattacharjee, “The Ontario Safe Schools Act”.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Sherina Harris, “Black Students Still Face”.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Stephen Mensah, “ZERO tolerance for Anti-Black, Brown and Indigenous Racism in Ontario Schools.”

  16. Sherina Harris, “Black Students Still Face”.

  17. Mike Adler, “Escaping Toronto school system's "pipeline to prison" requires change”,, December 14, 2017, equires-change/.


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