Human Rights in the School


What Is The Purpose Of The Guide?

This guide is designed to assist individuals to review the extent to which their school meets human rights standards of school management as well as to facilitate enhancement of human rights practices in schools. Most importantly, this guide is intended to assist educators in establishing a learning environment in which students have equality in learning opportunities, in which students can fully participate, and in which fairness prevails.

Articles 26(1) and 26(2) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights state:

  1. Everyone has the right to education ...
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1, as well as the countries which ratified it, recognized the importance of the education process in furthering the principles of human rights. Observance of human rights principles requires recognition of the worth of each individual and allows full and equal attainment of human potential. Human rights education is simply good education.

Because of the significant influence of the school in the socialization process, the education system is key to developing in young people a knowledge and understanding of the rights and responsibilities of both national and global citizenship. Human rights curriculum is one important component of human rights education. Another component, perhaps of equal if not greater importance however, may be that information which the school unintentionally transmits to students through its school management practices. A human rights education program will be most effective in a school environment which exemplifies respect for the dignity and worth of each individual and which makes the human rights principles of equality, justice, democracy, freedom and peace central to its philosophy and practice

Who Should Use The Guide?

This guide is intended as a resource for school administrators, students, teachers, parents and others involved in schooling who wish to examine human rights as they apply to the education process in a school setting.

It is anticipated that any school that decides to use this resource is already making efforts to operate in a manner which is consistent with human rights philosophy. This guidebook is primarily designed to assist those already committed schools to more systematically assess their operation and to make further progress, where needed and desired, in their commitment. The guide attempts to concentrate on practices which are within the management control of the school. Implementation of the suggested standards, however, requires the cooperation of school divisions and/or provincial departments of education.

Implementing this guide will also require the commitment of school resources something that many schools find in short supply. Hopefully, the school wishing to implement the guidebook will be able to access those necessary resources.

Although primarily of interest to those individuals who are active within the school, parts of the guide may also be of interest to school boards, textbook publishers, provincial departments of education and others whose work and decisions impact on the operation of the school.

What Is The Guide?

The guide contains eight chapters designed to take the reader step by step through an examination of human rights practices in the school. Chapter 1 contains a brief explanation of the guide. Chapter 2 is an introduction to human rights. Chapter 3 provides an overview of the process for implementing the guide. Chapters 4 through 8 deal with the heart of the guide, the diagnostic checklists. The checklists address standards for adherence to human rights principles throughout the school environment. The checklists are broken down into those human rights principles which might be considered most relevant to schools justice, democracy, fundamental freedoms and equality.

This guide is not intended to provide the user with legal advice on a school's compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms2 or other legislation. Rather, it examines human rights from a humanistic, philosophical and ethical perspective. If the user has concerns about the school's legal position regarding a particular issue, she or he should seek the advice of a lawyer.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The focus of this guide is human rights as set out in the widely acclaimed international instrument, the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because of its significance to human rights in Canada, however, brief consideration will be given to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its significance for educators.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entrenched in Canada's constitution in 1982. It has been called "the supreme law of Canada."3 It guarantees that our governments respect certain fundamental rights4. The Charter has great significance. It has reinforced Canada's commitment to democracy and human rights. It specifies human rights standards to which federal, provincial and territorial governments must adhere. Furthermore, it provides legal remedies for those whose rights are infringed upon by a government department or agency.5

The impact of the Charter for schools is quite profound. Before its passage, judges tended to respect the power of school authorities to make and implement school policy6. The Charter now appears to give individuals the power to challenge that autonomy where there is infringement of Charter-guaranteed rights and freedoms. Although the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the question of whether school boards and school personnel are bound by the Charter, many legal scholars assert that they are so bound7.

The impact of the Charter on provincial legislation can be seen in the case involving Québec's Bill 101.8 Bill 101 restricted access to English language education. The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down that provision of the legislation due to its incompatibility with the Charter guarantees for minority language educational rights.

On the assumption that it has broad application to the school system, the Charter would appear to allow students and others to challenge school rules where the content of such rules offends the rights guaranteed by the Charter or where the procedures for enforcing the rules do not comply with constitutional standards.9

There are few Supreme Court of Canada decisions in this area to date. It is therefore difficult to predict exactly how the Charter will influence school policies and procedures. There have been some lower court decisions declaring compulsory religious exercises in schools to be contrary to the Charter guarantee of freedom of religion10. Other decisions have limited the school's ability to, among other things, detain or suspend students11. Additional issues likely to arise are those involving search and seizure, freedom of speech and equality rights.

Nonetheless, the courts continue to recognize the need for a degree of administrative autonomy on the part of educators12. This, together with our traditional Canadian regard for "peace, order and good government," implies that the Supreme Court will likely exercise a degree of moderation in its approach to rights and freedoms in schools13. It is clear, nonetheless, that educators must now give serious consideration to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to the upcoming Supreme Court decisions in this area.

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