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Kingston post-secondary institutions promise discipline for students breaking COVID-19 laws

Kingston post-secondary institutions promise discipline for students breaking COVID-19 laws
Kingston's medical officer of health is urging for post-secondary schools to crack down on student partying by using their code of conduct.

Kingston’s two post-secondary institutions say they are ready to use their codes of conduct to sanction students who do not follow coronavirus legislation — if necessary, to the point of expulsion — even when off campus.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Dr. Kieran Moore, medical officer of health for the region, urged both Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College to start disciplining students who have been flouting coronavirus regulations by partying in large numbers, mainly in the university district.

“We need Queen’s and St. Lawrence College to step up and say ‘we embrace prevention, we embrace deterrence’ and they will expel students who blatantly disregard a provincial emergency civil protection act, the Reopening Ontario Act,” Moore told council.

Read more: Kingston police bust 2 gatherings for breaking COVID-19 restrictions in university district

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Just this past weekend, two people in the university district were fined under the Reopening Ontario Act for allegedly having parties that exceeded the 50-person indoor gathering limit and the 100-person outdoor gathering limit. Kingston police have also been kept busy since Aug. 28, responding to hundreds of noise complaints in the university district, and doling out charges.

Following Moore’s pleas, both Queen’s Principal Patrick Deane and St. Lawrence College President and CEO Glenn Vollebregt, told Global News they would consider using their codes of conduct to penalize those who disregard COVID-19 regulations.

But neither said expulsion would be their first course of action.

“The university is not going to make summary expulsions of students without any kind of fair process,” Deane said in an interview Wednesday.

Sanctions for Queen’s code of conduct range anywhere from academic probation to suspension, and after repeated offences expulsion can be considered. But Deane said that penalty will only be applied in the most extreme cases.

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Vollebregt also noted that St. Lawrence College will not be automatically expelling students who contravene COVID-19 guidelines.

“If a situation arises whereby one of, or a group of our students behaves in direct contravention to (COVID-19) directives, we will look at each case individually, and working within the framework of the student code of conduct, will make a determination on next steps with regard to disciplinary action,” Vollebregt said in a statement sent to Global News Wednesday.

Police calls have been mainly located in the university district, known for its large street parties like Homecoming and on St. Patrick’s Day, and despite repeated communication from the university, public health and the city, Moore said students are still gathering in huge groups.

At the city’s council meeting Tuesday night, council voted to raise the nuisance bylaw penalty, a bylaw originally created to quell Queen’s university street parties, from $500 to $2,000 for first-time offenders. They would then be referred to the courts if they are caught again and would face a fine of up to $100,000.

Mayor Bryan Paterson said the decision to raise fines was in direct response to large gatherings held in the city over the last several weeks.

“There are lives at stake and we need to send a stronger signal,” Paterson said in an interview Wednesday.

Read more: Kingston officials warn of ‘immediate’ penalties if gathering limits exceeded in the fall

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Paterson said the city has been working hand in hand with the university, but said in the end, how they decide to discipline their students is up to them, while the city has decided to get tougher on fines.

“We’ve run public education campaigns. We’ve come to the point where everyone knows the rules around social gatherings. Anyone who breaks them does so willingly and knowingly,” Paterson said.

Moore said Tuesday night that administrators have been previously hesitant to take that action, so the school may need a “nudge” to “make the right decisions” when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“This is already in the student handbook,” Moore said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We just want to see it utilized.”

Read more: Queen’s associate professor speaks out about students not adhering to COVID-19 protocols

Deane agreed that sometimes school bureaucracy can slow processes down, but that is in part due to the integrity of the school’s code of conduct process, which allows students a chance at due process. Nevertheless, the principal said he’s sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the community.

“I don’t blame people for being upset when individuals who behave as if they’re invulnerable behave that way,” Deane said.

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Going forward, Dean said Queen’s will be working with local authorities to identify any of their students charged by local authorities for unsafe or unlawful behaviour, in order to take the necessary action through the school’s code of conduct.

Read more: Coronavirus: Trent University students partying without masks, physical distancing raises concerns

“Now we’re at the situation in which we feel the students need to hear an uncompromising message from the university that we do expect them to conduct themselves in a way that doesn’t put other people’s health in jeopardy,” Deane said.

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Moore’s recommendations and the city’s move to increase fines come as the provincial government announced it will lower the limits on social gatherings in a bid to stem a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.

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Premier Doug Ford’s office has confirmed the move but won’t say when the new health guidelines will be released.

Currently, the region has five active cases of COVID-19. Moore said that one of the active cases was from the university district, with 40 close contacts under investigation by the health unit.

— With files from The Canadian Press