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9-11 and Legal Issues in Education

by The Honourable Marvin A. Zuker, Ontario (Canada) Court of Justice

Education law is a dynamic, invigorating, and intellectually stimulating discipline because it is constantly evolving to meet the needs of today’s schools. The events of September 11 have shown that Education, and its Legal Issues, have impacted those evolving needs.


We welcome the return to The Law Journal UK of Judge Zuker. Your comments are welcome on this and any of our articles -- contact Brian Risman, Publisher, The Law Journal UK regarding your thoughts. Please note that this article is provided with the permission of Orbit Magazine.


Trapped people found a moment to pick up their cell phones or swipe a credit card through the phone on the back of their airplane seat to make one last call.


That Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, an uncounted number of humans knowingly turned their faces toward death, and as they did so pressed the talk button on their cell phones.


Since September 11, so many teachers and educators have guided children through times of fear and uncertainty. Imparting subject matter is only a small part of what teachers do.


Education law is a dynamic, invigorating, and intellectually stimulating discipline because it is constantly evolving to meet the needs of today’s schools. The merits of its decisions aside, one has only to read recent Supreme Court decisions in such areas as the role of the teacher, searches in schools, school funding, and so on.


In light of these cases, among others, principals and administrators are charged with the task of developing and implementing policies that will enhance the school environment for students, teachers, and staff.


Perhaps the only constant in education law is that it evolves to meet the demands of a constantly changing world. It will always remain of utmost importance for all of us who are interested in children. In fact, the seemingly endless proliferation of new statutes, regulations, case law, and ministry memoranda speak of the need to be ever vigilant of how legal documents impact on education. The challenge for all educators, then, is to harness this knowledge in this ever-growing field so that we can all make our schools better places for all children.


Surely there is a direct connection between social justice and criminal justice?


Making streets safer has as much to do with literacy as it does with law, with the strength of families as with the length of sentences, with early intervention as with mandatory supervision. Crime prevention means recognizing connections between the crime rate and the unemployment rate, between how a child behaves at school and whether that child has had a hot meal that day.


Changes to our schools shouldn’t be driven by myths or, for that matter, by attempts at fiscal restraint masquerading as educational reform. Improvements must be based on principles that have to do with the kind of education we want for our children. If we begin to treat education as a commodity or a product, as opposed to a process, we run the risk of losing control over our own future. The responsibility for educating our young people is a collective responsibility. We all have an interest, and a say, in seeing that our schools reflect our society’s values.


Some of the most destructive violence does not break bones, it breaks minds. Children may be malleable but they are not resilient. If adolescents are deemed inadequate, how do we know when the indictment is true and when we really need to address this crisis?


The pattern of adult convictions does not compute. If every generation were so superior to the next, we could find a nation of demigods living not too far back in time. Yet although a golden age never existed, adults continually marshal statistics to confirm their disappointment in the young. Values and motivation are at the core of educational achievement. Kids do well in school when their internal value system encourages achievement, when their parents demand it, and when their peers reinforce it. Education is very different from health care and other professionally based relationships.


The most important event is not what the teacher does in the classroom. It is what the student does outside the classroom. To expect our classroom teachers to lead and motivate to the extent that they overcome the social forces outside our schools is naďve at the least. How can you teach someone who is hungry? How can you teach when nothing is ever good enough? There are human faces behind every test score–faces of students, teachers, and administrators. Our childhood makes us what we are. Our hurts and our happiness. Our loves and our hates. Our successes and our failures. All of our childhood experiences are woven into the fabric of our adult character. If hate gets out of hand for children at home, it often is fueled later by hate groups, or sometimes fanned by their anti-hate counterparts. No matter when the hatred gets out of control, it generally is traceable to childhood. Bigotry and hate. Love and tolerance. If parents can teach their children the importance of the difference, they can make a bigger difference than all of our laws. The inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighbourhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront in adult life after school ends. Money does not buy educational quality. Although the premise of many a crusading volume, including Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, is that ghetto schools have been allowed to rot, school spending in itself is not necessarily correlated with school achievement.

But parents hold the mutual responsibility for ensuring the importance of education and supporting their child’s efforts to succeed. An effective accountability system must recognize the role of the larger community in ensuring student success. Without family literacy support services, without tutors and mentors, without after-school and weekend enrichment and recreational programs, without day care and pre-school services, we may never provide healthy relationships and environments conducive to reducing school misconduct and crime and the ability to foster a real sense of belonging.

When all is said and done, attachment to family and school are protective factors. Commitment to school will reduce our number one concern, which seems to be a lack of discipline and a lack of respect. We have seen the enemy. We must not allow it to become us. The tragedy of September 11 may in the long run help us to nurture the best in all, to rekindle civic engagement, to connect each more fully with family, friends, and neighbours, and to put our children first, a Ministry of the Child.

It is time to choose to be a hero in your own family and community.



The Honourable Marvin A. Zuker is a Family Court Judge in the Ontario (Canada) Court of Justice. He is the author of several books on Family Law, as well as a renowned lecturer on the topic. His latest work, Sexual Misconduct in Education, has been reviewed by The Law Journal UK.


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