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Encouraging Tolerance and Acceptance in Public Schools

Posted Sep 12 2008 3:20am

(No, this is not the ‘Acceptance’ post that I keep saying I’m going to write. But I have started it…)

I’ve been thinking about tolerance and acceptance for a while now, and with the Bear’s entry into Kindergarten the subject is very top of mind. Recently (at least in ‘Ian time’) Kristina posted What is your dream autism school? over at AutismVox. One of the comments particularly struck me:

"The public school’s sole responsibility is to educate children. It is not the public school’s responsibility to dictate sociological norms, ethical norms, and religious norms. The public schools have repeatedly displayed time and time again that they will never be able to adequately parent a child. The society that expects a public school to parent to the children they teach is always weakened by that expectation."

To which I responded:

"Other than on the last one (religious norms) and softening the word ‘dictate’ (I would suggest something between disseminate and encourage) I would disagree. Part of educating children is teaching them about the rights and responsibilities that come with being part of society. Building ‘good citizens’ has been an implicit - where not explicit - part of the public school agenda since the beginning of universal public education, in the U.S. and much of the world. In the Western world the rise of the nation-state and the introduction of universal public education went hand in hand. This is not the same thing as ‘parenting’.

Teaching tolerance and acceptance of diversity is a legitimate social goal, especially as societies themselves become increasingly diverse. At least in my daughter’s school this is stated as one of the benefits - for the entire student population - of inclusion."

What amazed me in the back and forth that followed was that there should even be any debate about this. (What didn’t surprise me was the typical practice of responding to ‘what I want to say you wrote’ rather than what I actually did write.) Regardless of whether public schools ARE teaching tolerance and acceptance – which is a different, although related issue - do people not feel that teaching tolerance and acceptance of others is one of the school system’s responsibilities?

To those who argue that the school’s responsibility is to educate, do they not feel that social education is also part of this? Children do not sit isolated in cubicles but are part of a classroom and a school, and ultimately of a community and a society. Are schools not responsible – along with parents - for teaching students how to behave, interact, and treat others in that classroom, school, community and society?

To be clear, I'm not arguing against educating autistic children in separate classrooms or separate schools (or private schools), where appropriate, required, or desired by the family. Instead, I am stating what I believe is the responsibility of the public education system to all students and to society.

In the Bear’s first ‘Friday file’ (the school batches up a lot of communication into a folder that is sent home every Friday, to be read and initialed by parents for return on Monday morning) was a pamphlet entitled “Safe and caring schools”. In this the School Board stressed the importance of school safety, and that this is a shared responsibility between the school, the student, and parents. The Board indicated that:

"We work with parents and the community to help children and teens develop social skills and appropriate behaviours as they learn and grow. We teach all children about safety, healthy choices and positive values and behaviour."

Further, the pamphlet indicated that it is the school's responsibility to (among other items):

”- teach positive behaviour and good citizenship"

" - teach acceptance of and respect for others”

and that it is the student’s responsibility to (among other items):

" - be courteous to fellow students and staff"

" - show respect for the rights and feelings of others"

Parents also have the responsibility to look for ways to reinforce the same messages at home.

The School Board further indicated that "We do not tolerate violence, harassment, racism, verbal and physical abuse, bullying, fighting… intimidation… or any other dangerous, detrimental or inappropriate behaviour" and also that "there are clear consequences for inappropriate behaviour". At a minimum, the School Board has at least accepted and taken ownership of this responsibility.

Some might say that this is just a pamphlet, paying lip service to concepts that are quickly forgotten. But at least in the Bear’s school, this appears not to be the case. In various ongoing talks with the principal and the ASD coordinator, they both have specifically indicated that the school takes a very inclusive approach, where possible, and that one of the benefits of this was that of teaching tolerance and acceptance to all of the children. They also indicated that they ‘buddy-up’ special needs children with peers and older children to help them fit in and find support within the wider school environment. The policy is not one of forced inclusion (there are other options available besides mainstreaming, where appropriate), but of accommodation and support within the school and community environment.

My neighbour’s children previously attended the same school (the youngest finished her last year there in June, before moving on to the next school level this September). I had earlier asked them about whether there were any autistic children at the school, how they were treated, etc., and specifically asked about bullying. The younger child was a ‘buddy’ to one of the autistic children, and indicated that the child was an accepted part of the group and was fun to play with. She considered him a friend. She and the rest of her family also indicated that bullying was not tolerated, and that it was not an issue at the school or in the community.

Since the Bear is new to the school, I can’t say how well the school system will ultimately live up to these ideals in her case. But what I can say is that these principles are an accepted part of school policy and appear to be part of the school and community culture. Today when I dropped the Bear off I talked to the EA about how she was doing, and how well she was interacting with the other children. One of my questions was ‘How well are the other children accepting her?’ So far so good. I indicated that I thought it was just as important that the other children learn to accept the Bear as it was for her to interact with them, and the EA strongly indicated her agreement.

In Ontario, we’re now in the middle of a provincial election campaign. One of the big issues is public school funding, and whether it should be extended to religious schools. I’m not going to dive into the issue, but what I would say is that all three major parties are committed to the idea of Ontario schools being a place of social integration. The party supporting the extension of funding to religious schools is discussing the issue at least in part in terms of bringing them into the public system, teaching the standard curriculum and adhering to provincial guidelines. The parties opposed to this reject the move in part as being counter to the objective of integrating various cultures and religions within the public school system. What is interesting is that all parties appear to see schools as a method of integrating various cultures within a multicultural society, not via conformity but through tolerance and acceptance of differences and diversity.

This is not to say that we don’t have problems, or that everything works here. There are major issues connected with public education in this province (including funding), as well as social issues that need to be addressed. But I would suggest that the idea of the school system being an agent of societal integration, with a mandate to encourage tolerance and acceptance, is a very mainstream idea in this province.

I believe that one of the things we need to work towards is ensuring that autistics are ‘just another group’ towards whom tolerance and acceptance is extended, accepting autistics for who they are now and for whom they will become. Regardless of whether one takes a neurodiversity perspective, a ‘cure’ perspective, or is within the great swath of opinion in between, we all have an interest in having society accept autistics, and accept and endorse the right of accommodation where required. This is one of the areas in which presumably the whole community of those touched by autism could agree? For those who take a neurodiversity perspective I’d suggest that this is probably obvious, but even for those pursuing a cure, presumably the rights of autistic children to acceptance and accommodation as autistics should be accepted and respected until their cure is achieved?

Social change can sometimes happen quickly, but some changes take time to permeate through society. The public school system is probably the most universal of all social programs (the Ministry of Transportation / DMV probably comes close, but it would be difficult to teach acceptance of diversity as part of a driving test). If we do not expect – and where necessary, demand – that the school systems take ownership of their responsibility to teach tolerance and acceptance to the next generation, and ingrain this within society - and hold them accountable for doing so - then who instead do we expect to do this?

Maybe Oprah?

Again, I fail to see why this is controversial.

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