Remedies for Disturbances in the School and Classroom
In my old patrol zone I had several schools, both elementary and secondary. On more than one occasion I attended one of the schools to take a report from a teacher or principal after an irate parent had come into the school and caused a scene. Oftentimes, situations like this could be resolved by simply speaking with the parent and letting them know this was not appropriate, or issuing a Trespass Notice, but sometime it required more. The school, and in particular the classroom should be a sanctuary for learning in a peaceful, safe setting. Disturbing this sanctuary is simply not acceptable. There is both provincial and federal legislation which would agree with me and if situations like this do occur, the appropriate response for school personnel is to report it to the police and have them address it firmly. This acts as both a specific deterrent to the parent, discouraging them from doing it again, and a general deterrent to others, letting them know that disruption of the school’s proceedings will simply not be tolerated under any circumstances. The purpose of this article is to educate teachers and other school personnel, as well as parents, about what can be done when incidents do occur.
The typical situation I was called to attend at schools involved parents coming into the school, either to a specific classroom or some other area in the school, and venting their anger on a teacher, principal, or other school employee. Rarely were the incidents physical, rather they involved a lot of yelling and screaming on the part of the parent. This was always unsettling for those involved or within earshot and it caused a disruption to the students in the vicinity. In a situation like this, even if there is no assault or actual threats made, there are still a number of options available to both the police and citizens to deal with the incident.
If the police officers arrive while the disturbance is still occurring, the person causing the disturbance can be arrested for Breach of the Peace. There is no actual charge for breaching the peace, it is just an arrest authority available under Section 31 of the Criminal Code to end the incident by removing the person. A release usually occurs as soon as the disturbance has ceased. Under Section 30 of the Criminal Code any citizen (not just a police officer) can detain a person who is engaging in a breach of the peace, for the purpose of delivering them to a police officer, provided they use no more force than is reasonably necessary to do so.
If the disturbance is still occurring when officers arrive, they could also arrest the person who is causing the disturbance for Cause Disturbance under Section 175 of the Criminal Code, if there is a witness who will give a statement that they were actually disturbed by the incident. In the absence of a witness, police officers themselves can be the ones who are disturbed. For the purpose of this section, disturbed has the common meaning. According to the Code, a disturbance can be caused by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language, by being drunk, or by impeding or molesting other persons. Citizens have no authority to act under this section because Cause Disturbance is a summary conviction offence.
Another option is an arrest for Mischief under Section 430 of the Criminal Code where a person obstructs, interrupts or interferes with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property (i.e. the school), or obstructs, interrupts or interferes with any person in the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property. An arrest for Mischief can be made where an officer either witnesses the offence or obtains grounds after speaking with a witness or complainant. Since Mischief is an indictable offence, Section 494 of the Criminal Code allows any citizen to arrest a person for Mischief, if they find them committing it and they use no more force than is reasonably necessary.
Schools often have signs at the entrances which say that all persons must report immediately to the main office to declare their reason for being there. If they have such signage, and a person enters and causes a disturbance, they could be charged with a $65 ticket under the Trespass to Property Act for Engaging in a Prohibited Activity (using the inference that the sign is intended to prohibit a person from doing anything other than entering and immediately attending the office). Either police or citizens can arrest under this Act if they believe on reasonable grounds that a person is on the premise in contravention of the act. Police can also arrest a person off premise under this Act if they have freshly departed and refuse to identify themselves.
But perhaps the most relevant remedy is found in Section 212 of Ontario’s Education Act: “Every person who wilfully interrupts or disquiets the proceedings of a school or class is guilty of an offence”. The purpose of the inclusion of this section the Act is clear: the Government of Ontario supports the sanctity of the school and the classroom and does not want people interfering with the education that goes on there. I think that all school employees, especially school administrators should support and enforce this. Since this is a provincial offence with no specific arrest authorities, citizens have no authority to act on it and police can only charge, not arrest. A charge is commenced by way of a Part III Summons to Provincial Court.
Now I’m not suggesting that all of these remedies are applicable to all situations. Indeed there might be times when the situation can be effectively dealt with without any charges, perhaps just by way of a Trespass Letter, but I hope I have established that there are numerous other options available to both citizens (teachers and staff) and police to deal with disturbances in the school and disruptions to the classroom setting. There is no reason why this behaviour should be tolerated by the school and no reason why police should not be able to deal with it appropriately.
From my own time as a police officer I observed that some officers were not able to think outside the box when dealing with situations like this (they only investigated whether there had been an assault or threat) or they did not see the broader implications of a disturbance at the school. Perhaps having several teachers in my own family, I am more sensitive to these incidents and I think that people involved in these situations, especially complainants and victims, should not be afraid to ask the police officer responding to their call for service whether they are aware of the provisions under the Education Act to deal with the incident (print it out and show it to them!), or whether they have considered any of the other options I have discussed. They should also relate to the officer that the school’s position on this is that the behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated and they would like it dealt with forcefully. If they refuse, ask them why. If they can’t give you a satisfactory answer, contact their supervisor and discuss the incident with them and don’t be afraid to follow up with the officer to find out what the outcome of their investigation was after they have spoke with the other people involved.
Bear in mind that citizens do not have the right to direct a police officer to lay a charge; that is up to the officer’s discretion, and rightly so, because citizens do not have the benefit of an officer’s training and experience. However, I do think that citizens have the right to ask a police officer to articulate why they are (or are not) choosing a particular course of action. Ultimately, any citizen can lay a charge privately for any federal or provincial offence if they are unsatisfied with a police officer’s refusal to do so.
Please feel free to use this article and the resources I have hyperlinked to educate yourself and others who have an interest in this. I do not mind, in fact I encourage, reprinting or reusing this article to facilitate education. All I ask is that you send me an email or post a reply to this article to let me know. Also, I welcome any questions you may have related to this article.
About the author: Simon Borys is a former police officer who is currently studying law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario to become a criminal lawyer.