Racial violence in our schools rings alarms we cannot ignore

Educators are failing to protect racialized students.

Last November, officials at a Waterloo region elementary school called the police on a four-year-old Black child.

As a parent, I have not only raised my own children, but I’ve spent countless hours volunteering in schools and classrooms. I cannot picture any circumstance where adult teachers could feel so threatened by a child that they needed to involve the police.

This overreaction and this criminalization of a Black child are easier to imagine when placed in context as only one of many instances of trauma and indignities Black and brown children have faced at the hands of educators, classmates and strangers in Ontario schools, this past school year alone.

In February, as they rehearsed for a Black history month event, Black students discovered anti-Black graffiti defacing their Etobicoke high school.

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Another teacher in the Waterloo area was charged with assault after using tape to restrain two racialized children last year. The Crown dropped the charges in May.

In Simcoe County, parents are demanding action from the school board after a Barrie-area Black child was sent notes that included a hand-drawn noose and a threat of rape. Following these incidents teachers had the victim sit in a space with the attacker to show “acceptance” of their apology.

Only days apart, students had to call out their teachers in London for using racial slurs in their elementary and secondary schools.

Students were also responsible for bringing it to light when a Toronto school board teacher, unchallenged by his colleagues, paraded through the halls of their secondary school in blackface.

And just last week, a video surfaced of yet another educator repeatedly using the N-word in front of students at Viola Desmond Public School in Ajax.

Those outside the system might naively assume that all of these folks are no longer involved with our children. However, as with the case of the priest who was allowed to continue working in a Newmarket Catholic school after suggesting that a picture of a brown Jesus depicted a terrorist, parents have little visibility into what happens to those who commit or condone racial violence in our schools.

Occasionally, attempts are made to placate parents with apologies. In other cases, such as a message from Waterloo’s director of education, these public statements betray the first instincts of educators to diminish the existence of anti-Black racism, categorize these as “unfortunate incidents,” and defend the system’s dedication to “inclusion.” All of this does little to meaningfully change the experiences of Black and other racialized children and does nothing to address the trauma of those who experience racial violence.

In fact, while many within the system continue to insist that these racist incidents are not “reflective” of their school community, data and lived experience suggest otherwise.

Data from the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) 2021 human rights report tells us these attacks are reflective of many racialized student’s experiences. The report characterizes racism as a serious problem within its schools. While it shows incidents of anti-Black racism exceeded all other reported incidents by a wide margin, it also shows that incidents of anti-Semitism and homophobia have risen at an alarming rate. Recognizing that the TDSB is one of the largest and most diverse boards, the report suggests that the challenges it is documenting mirror societal challenges with racism and human rights issues.

The racial violence filmed, photographed and witnessed by children in multiple school boards across Ontario this past school year alone seem to bear this research out.

What the research cannot tell us are the damaging and lasting effects these incidents have on children. How can racialized parents trust a system that not only disproportionately punishes our children and expects less of them but also cannot keep them safe from the harm of racial violence?

We have to demand more of the education system. We should expect educators to be capable of disrupting the kind of hatred that boils over into racial violence. As a start, the consequences for racial violence should be no less serious than those for physical violence. Just as an educator who hits a student would no longer be allowed to continue teaching, one who inflicts racial violence should no longer be part of our school system.

We are all trying to recover from the last two years and brace ourselves for whatever comes next. The alarm bells sounded by racial violence should not be ignored.

Schools should be safe places for all children but as long as incidents of racial violence persist and our school system takes a lackadaisical approach to dismantling the problem, schools will feel anything but safe for racialized students.

In 2022, racial violence should never be acceptable in our schools.

This article was originally published by How Goes The Nation, a national opinion platform elevating the perspectives of racialized folks on everything and anything to do with race and racism in Canada.

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