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    OP-ED

    18 Jan 2021

    Why I Do Not Trust Schools To Protect My Black Son Featured

    Like many Black Canadians, I have had my share of negative experiences in the school system. I remember a white kid not wanting to hold my hand as we formed a “sharing circle” in kindergarten. In Grade 1, the teacher never once called my name when I had my hand up. I was invisible to her. They created the gifted program in Grade 3. Apparently, I tested high enough to qualify. I learned recently that I was not admitted until my parent strenuously intervened. It had been difficult for the school to accept a Black child into a program that was surreptitiously designed for white elites.

    My Grade 6 report card described me as “too serious.” Our parents instilled in us that education was the key to success. The subliminal message: Education is a weapon to help you overcome Canadian racism. It is serious business. Teachers of that era didn’t understand that us children of immigrants are in school to learn, not to laugh at dad jokes.

    Luckily, I was a girl. I look back at the kids who were branded as “troublesome”. They were olive-skinned immigrants or Afro-Caribbean boys. They had “funny names”. I looked them up 30 years later. They seemed ravaged by life. It started early. It started in school. 

    And it started much earlier than I thought.   

    My son landed in Canada from overseas at age 5. He had been in private school for 2+ years, having learned multiplication and division. You read that right. A 5-year-old math whiz. My son spoke 4 languages, including French and English. He also had a foreign way of pronouncing words, which is normal for an immigrant.

    Being a keener, I registered him for school 9 months prior to his arrival. When he landed in Canada, I got him vaccinated immediately so he could start school the next week. 

    Arriving at school early one morning to get the ball rolling, the secretary gave me the 3rd degree.

    Have you registered online? Yes.

    Do you have proof of residence? Yes.

    Do you have a lease signed in ink? No. I'm a homeowner. (Yes, Black people can own homes in this tony neighbourhood).

    Did you go thru the immigration evaluation? No. Not needed. (Side note: there is a two-month wait for a school board evaluator to check an immigrant child’s language skills. No child will be admitted without it. My kid is 5. What exactly are you evaluating?  Why are his report cards from a private pre-school in Africa not proof enough he speaks English? Who is going to babysit my kid for two months while we wait for this evaluation?  Do you think I have 2 months off work for this?

    The secretary tried every which way to turn us away. Unfortunately for her, I came with receipts. I had scanned all the paperwork ahead of time, emailed it to them, and I had the originals in hand. Finally, she whimpers "I guess you're organized".

    I wanted to snap back “B*tch, my son just came off the boat. I didn't.” 

    I smiled and said nothing. 

    Then she says “the principal is too busy to meet us”. Regarding his first day of school, she gave me a “don't call us, we'll call you” kind of answer.

    I guess my provincial tax dollars don’t afford me any respect. 

    As we leave, guess who's standing there doing nothing?

    The principal.

    He probably saw a Black family and rushed to inquire what we were doing there.

    "Too busy", my a$$.

    My son was only in class for a few weeks before the pandemic shut down in-person learning. It was devastating on many levels, especially since schools are the primary vector for acculturation/assimilation.  

    Fast forward to September. New classmates. New teacher. In-person learning. New friends. Yay. 

    My kid loooooves school. He is eager to attend.

    We got a photo of his classroom. My kid is the only Black child. He was assigned seating in the back row. I expressed concern to the teacher and principal. They aren't moved to act.

    Every day, we walk home from school and I quiz him on what happened, what he learned, did he make a new friend, etc. It’s important to let your kid talk and listen for clues of issues. 

    Six weeks into the school year, I get a call from the school. My kid spit on another kid. A white girl. Twice. He also displayed aggressive behaviour.

    This is not his normal behaviour. Let me investigate.

    It took over an hour for us to tease out the whole story. My son explained how he was kicked by a classmate in the hallway every other day.

    “Why didn't you say something?”

    “We are not allowed to talk when we're in the hallway. But it (the kicks) hurt a lot.”

    Then he explained there was a white girl who wanted to be first in line. He runs faster than her. She pushed, kicked her way into the front of the line. She did that almost every day. He reluctantly ceded his spot. Except today he had enough. That's the white girl he spit on. Twice.

    Wait. It gets better.

    My son was taunted, teased and assaulted by older kids at recess. On the daily. “They scream some words at me that I don’t understand,” he says.

    I bet it's the n-word. Being African born, he has never heard that word until now. I don't have the heart to explain what it is.

    Today, an older white girl dared two older white boys to push him. The boys obliged. My kid fought back. The recess supervisor intervened, punished everyone except the instigating white girl. She managed to get away.

    My kid was furious at being unjustly punished. He let the supervisor know it. He doesn't mince words.

    When recess ended, he went to the front of the line, and the other white girl tried to push him out of line (as usual). This time he reacted.

    Let’s recap:  a new-to-Canada child was bullied and kicked for weeks on end, and no adult said or did anything about it. They were all blind to his abuse. 

    The moment the sole Black kid reacted, he was punished and his parents were called in.

    I explained the whole story to the principal without editorial comment. I want to believe they addressed the bullying head-on. My kid hasn't reported being kicked or harassed ever since.

    A few days later, I get a call from the school board's immigration services bureau. They want to talk.

    Fine.

    At the conference call, we are told that newly arrived immigrant children need some care to address behaviour issues. They are changing cultures and that requires some assistance.

    What does that have to do with my child? 

    Your school had my child in its care for weeks, stood by while he was called the n-word, kicked, bullied. You did nothing to stop it. You did not punish the culprits. And now you think the bullying victim is the one who needs behaviour help?!

    The immigration facilitator seems stunned into silence.

    I wondered, “You saw my kid's Obama-sounding name and assumed his parents just got off the boat, too?”

    I asked, “Did you call the parents of any of the offending kids to discuss behaviour?”

    Dead silence.

    “Did you address the fact he was called a n*gger by older kids?”

    Dead silence. Then the politicians’ empty schpiel about "racism has no place in schools". <eye roll> Then he says: "I have been working for this school board for 5+ years. I have never seen any racism.”

    “Listen, buddy. I was in this damn school board for 15 yrs. I saw racism from teachers, principals. I have receipts. I have scars.  Don't tell me what you've seen. I've lived it. And it looks like the school board has barely evolved in 30 yrs.”

    He starts stuttering. I guess he brought a knife to a gunfight. I came to play.

    He said he would follow up. 

    He never did.

    I’m left to wonder….  Is this how school boards treat immigrant Black kids? Like a problem that needs to be solved? Gaslighting a child and his/her parents? 

    I noticed how quickly supervisors reacted to perceived white pain. Why weren't they there for my kid? 

    Am I supposed to trust all the adults -- teachers, principals, supervisors -- who ignored or were indifferent to the abuse my son experienced?

    This is about Ontario but don't think your school board is any different.

    Do not trust schools. Do not trust them to have your Black child's best interest at heart.

    Read 2296 times Last modified on Monday, 18 January 2021 14:14
    (13 votes)
    Rachel Décoste

    Rachel Décoste is an immigration, diversity and anti-racism expert from Ottawa.  Ms. Décoste is an alumni of Obama’s presidential campaigns; she was named to the Top 100 Accomplished Black Canadian women in 2018. Ms. Décoste facilitates anti-Black racism workshops for corporations. Ms. Décoste’s audiobook about her symbolic journey to West Africa is set for release in February 2021.

    Twitter: @RachelDecoste

    www.racheldecoste.ca/

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