What you learn from suing your teachers

In Justice by Diego Lopes

In May of 2019, a family filed  a $1-million lawsuit against the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), alleging that administrators failed to act on ongoing racial harassment and physical attacks against their child. The lawsuit arraigned the school board for not  reprimanding the student for lobing racist attacks on their family member.  The abuse started in October, but the student and parents were continually denied their repeated requests to be transferred to another school until April 2020.  The YRDSB neglected the safety of their student and knowingly kept him in school, subjected to abuse.  

 In 2019, Toronto District School Board administrators, principals, and teachers within Glenview Senior Public School failed to protect a Black student who was physically and verbally abused by a white boy for months. The school board did not attempt to intervene until legal action was introduced to hold the board accountable for the lack of protection.  Failing to address the root problem before escalation, the school’s principal and vice-principal were put on leave while the board launched further investigations. 

The education sector is meant to teach us to be just, but it is one of the greatest reproducers of injustice in society. Whether it is their inappropriate comments or failing to help BIPOC students seeking help, the education system is foundational in the school-to-prison pipeline. Have we really gotten to a place where for BIPOC students to be treated fairly they have to sue their teachers ? BIPOC students must feel safe in every space – and that includes being at school and receiving an education. 

Systemic racism goes so deep in the education system. Simply placing administrators on leave is not an effective way to break it down.  These lawsuits show that those who enable racism within school boards can be held accountable. Unfortunately, they were not preventative measures in these cases, but it can set precedence to see change in the education system. 

One of the ways racism is perpetuated in the education system is through discipline. White and BIPOC students receive very different levels of discipline from administrators. The outcomes are dangerous. A study done by the ___ shows black and brown students are disciplined 20% more severely than white students the first time they commit an offense. And 29% more severely for committing a second offence.  As school punishments become harsher and begin to involve police more often, a pipeline from child discipline to police custody is created. 

If my sense of justice was formed by the treatment I received at the York Region District School Board, my understanding would be wildly distorted.  As I attended class in this school board, I was one of few people who did not fit the makeup of my predominantly white school. My high school experience was far from the best 4 years of my life. Looking back, I had not thought much of the constant microaggressions – at the time I had just brushed them off.  But I now realize I was disciplined for things that should have never raised any eyebrows. 

In my senior year, signing myself out to go off campus as an 18-year-old who could leave on their own volition, was like an interrogation. It was always followed by, “Make sure you’re not doing anything bad.” When I was applying to university as an honors student for all four years of high school, my guidance counsellor told me I would be better fit for another form of post-secondary education. When I started applying for university, my principal pulled me aside and suggested I explain that I was a biracial student from a single-parent family when applying to schools.  They insisted it was a huge part of my story, as if I did not live in a home that was conducive to my learning and well-being. The list goes on, but I will always remember getting sent home time and time again for standing up to a bully who used racial slurs against my younger sister. The school’s excuse was that the student was just flirting and was not doing anything harmful. I was told my actions were aggressive and uncalled for. Although I didn’t take legal action, these incidents are not isolated, and the number of untold stories heavily outweighs the ones that are published. We must speak about them and work from a place of strength to feel safe in these spaces. 

In addition to seeing the rise of lawsuits against school boards, we are also seeing advocacy groups, teachers groups, and student groups rise up and advocate for themselves, and win. Schools and the education system are meant to educate, not punish.  It is supposed to be a supportive learning environment.  Schools should promote happy, productive, and safe spaces for every life.  Unfortunately, the education system has become another abusive place for BIPOC students. Justice has become nothing but an idea that only promotes safety to white bodies.  We need to rebuild the education system to create a safe place for children, instead of feeding into the system that continues to abuse BIPOC people.