On the first day of school, Tony stood outside the main office, in a lineup of students, waiting to pick up his timetable. He left with a three-day suspension slip.
The reason? A vice-principal at Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School in Rexdale smelled marijuana.
“I was stunned,” recalls the 16-year-old, whose real name the Star agreed to withhold. “I said, ‘I haven’t been smoking’ … I asked her if she wanted to check my bag … she refused.”
It’s the kind of scene that could play out in other schools after recreational cannabis becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17. With just over two weeks to go, few concrete steps have been taken to prepare for the impact legislation will have on schools, but educators say they are gearing up for a new reality and that teachers will be trained, policies will be updated and the curriculum tweaked.
When Tony thinks of that day in September, he says nothing in his behaviour or appearance suggested he was high — the eleventh grader says he has never even tried weed. There was just a light scent of marijuana in the air, which he too had smelled.
“The office was busy. I was not the only person in there. They could’ve done an inspection on the kids seeing if they had (marijuana). That’s not what they did.”
Instead, Tony — who had never been suspended — was sent home for the rest of the week. A letter signed by Principal Joanne Melo states disciplinary action was taken because he was “under the influence of illegal drugs.”
“(The vice-principal) picked the wrong person and was not willing to listen to him,” says Tony’s mother, adding he should have been given the “benefit of the doubt” in the absence of proof. “He was begging them to smell him and look in his bag.”
She questions how the school concluded he was “under the influence” based on a smell, asking, “What assessment tool are they using?”
“They smelled pot in the air, but it wasn’t my son. So when they legalize marijuana what are they going to do when the whole place smells like marijuana?”
It’s not far-fetched, especially since the Progressive Conservatives introduced legislation Thursday allowing recreational marijuana to be smoked where cigarettes are permitted. That morning, as Tony walked to school, near Kipling Ave. and Rexdale Blvd., in a neighbourhood grappling with violence and gang activity, he passed people on the street smoking pot. It’s not an uncommon sight, or smell, says the teen who sometimes falls asleep with the scent of weed wafting in through his bedroom window.
Being black, Tony says he was especially concerned a suspension would garner him a “bad reputation among teachers” and stain his Ontario Student Record.
“If someone pulls up my record … they’re going to think of me as a bad person, but I’m not a bad person,” he says. “And knowing that I’m a black kid, they’re going to think even more about me, that I’m a loser, a bum, and that I’m going to drop out of school later on. That’s how most people think of the stereotypical black teenage boy. ”
When reached for comment, Principal Melo said “due to privacy laws we cannot discuss a situation involving a student.” Similarly, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) cannot comment on the incident, but acknowledges it’s got work to do given the impending legislation.
“We’re going to have to prepare for the smells — and everything else,” says TCDSB spokesperson John Yan. “This is new territory for everyone involved with students and young people. Parents, teachers, social workers, psychologists, guidance counsellors and even police will have to deal with the whole person and have a community-approach to dealing with usage.
“One of the challenges is to ensure that educators are appropriately trained … to differentiate and identify someone who may or may not be under the influence,” said Yan, adding education and training sessions will begin after legalization. “The simple fact that you smell like you’ve been taking it, obviously is not going to be empirical in determining if someone is under the influence. So, clearly, that is part of the training.”
Because high school students are, predominantly, underage — in Ontario, a person must be 19 to use, buy possess and grow cannabis — existing rules against recreational use remain in effect. And although legal it will be prohibited on school grounds and during school-related activities.
According to recent amendments in the Education Act, when the new law kicks in a student who’s under the influence of recreational cannabis, or in possession of it, may be suspended for up to 20 school days — but beforehand, the principal must consider individual circumstances and mitigating factors. If a student gives marijuana to a minor, then there’s an automatic suspension of up to 20 days, and expulsion may be considered.
The Ministry of Education has released resources for educators, parents and youth and is working on additional material to be distributed this fall to ensure principals and vice-principals have the necessary information to support students and keep schools safe, says spokesperson Heather Irwin. It’s also consulting on the best way to efficiently support the training needs of staff in school boards and schools. In the spring, the then-Liberal government promised $2.8 million for school boards to help them pay for staff training and resource development, but it’s unclear what the status of those funds are.
As for the curriculum, there will be minor changes to reflect legalization. Learning about cannabis — its use, abuse and misuse — is included in the Health and Physical Education curriculum, specifically in Grade 6. There will also be slight changes to subject areas such as social sciences, humanities and law.
In the coming weeks and months, the Toronto District School Board will work with the ministry and Toronto Public Health (TPH), on the “development of curriculum, professional learning and safe and caring schools guidelines,” says TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird.
Public health staff are working with both public and Catholic boards to help “build their capacity to create and continue non-judgmental conversations with youth about cannabis,” says Adrienne Chin, manager of healthy communities at TPH. The goal is to boost students’ knowledge of marijuana’s health impacts, minimize harm related to cannabis use, and provide resources for educators.
“That’s all part of our preparation for getting our teachers and staff to be ready for this new reality,” says Yan of the TCDSB. “School boards are all gearing up to be ready.”
The TCDSB is creating portals — a public one for parents and an internal one for staff — with cannabis information provided by the city and province, and is updating its protocols and policies to reflect the new law.
When it comes to suspensions, principals will have to consider various factors, says Yan, adding “environmental issues and context are going to be very important.” For instance, a student can go to someone’s house for lunch where adults are legally smoking weed and end up reeking of it without touching it.
When Tony’s mother learned of the suspension, she was shocked. The teen spent the summer working as a counsellor at a children’s camp, has more than 300 hours of volunteer service, and typically heads home straight after school, staying clear of bad influences.
To help her advocate on his behalf, she contacted Tony’s mentor Andre Smith, a volunteer at the Jamaican Canadian Association who tutors youth in math, financial literacy and English. For Tony, Smith is like a big brother, someone he can look up to and turn to for advice.
Smith has known Tony for about a year, and describes him as a quiet, disciplined and curious kid. He too was surprised by the suspension and met with the school’s administration. Smith, who’s an adjudicator in an Ontario administrative tribunal, asked if Tony’s belongings were searched for cannabis or paraphernalia, if they smelled his breath, if his eyes were red, or if his behaviour indicated he was high. The answers, he says, were “No.”
He pressed further. Without evidence, and since Tony has never been in trouble before, why not issue a warning? Why suspend him on the first day of school?
“They said the school based its decision on the balance of probability and the discretion that’s given to them,” Smith told the Star. “The balance of probability, really is that the evidence for and against is equal … There was no evidence.”
Smith supports the school’s no-drug policy, but says the process that led to Tony’s suspension was flawed and the school didn’t do its due diligence. That’s why he took a keen interest in this matter — he worries about this happening to others.
“Marijuana is going to become legal and people are going to be smoking, whether we like it or not, and more people are going to be smelling like pot,” says Smith. “But if you’re going to make a decision that impacts someone, it should be fair.”
Tony’s mother appealed the suspension to the superintendent of education — and won. The suspension was recently rescinded and expunged from Tony’s record. The mother is happy with the result, but wonders what would have happened if she hadn’t advocated on her son’s behalf, which some families don’t have the time or resources to do.
As for Tony, he’s glad to be back in school.
“I’m happy it’s off my record,” said the teen. “I just hope the teachers know what they’re doing if they come up with a situation like this.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74