A report found many Black students in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board felt unsafe at school. Photo courtesy Hamilton Students for Justice

Hamilton anti-racism report seeks change

  • November 28, 2021

Almost two-thirds of Black students in the Hamilton, Ont., Catholic school board said they feel unsafe in their school, according to a new report.

Sixty per cent of Black students in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board surveyed reported feeling unsafe at school, the Community Safety and Well-Being Action Plan for Black Youth in Hamilton found. The report was conducted through a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Education put forward by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion along with Black leaders from Hamilton Students for Justice (HS4J).

Based on input from students, parents and caregivers, the report proposes 11 recommendations calling on educational stakeholders and institutions to act upon with urgency. Among these are the need for mental health supports, the involvement of Black students in the co-creation of Black curriculum, collection of impact statements from Black families when acts of racism are reported and anti-racism/anti-oppression testing and competency for new hires. The group is calling on some recommendations to be applied immediately and others beginning in fall 2022.

“We’ve seen at least during the COVID-19 pandemic how quickly institutions can step up when they see there’s an emergency and people are in trouble,” said Layla El-Dakhakhni, a member of HS4J. “Harm is very urgent and needs addressing very quickly. We know that can happen once people see the harm and our care about it.”

A total of 159 students, parents, guardians and caregivers participated in this project, through either Zoom consultation sessions or surveys. Consultations were intended to create opportunity and a safe space for Black youth to engage in discussions with other Black youth and organizations. 

“It really helps to highlight how urgent this is and how institutions could absolutely make the decision right now to prioritize Black students, to put funding and care and just make an earnest effort into protecting Black students,” said El-Dakhakhni. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening at the moment. Hopefully we can keep pushing for that.”

While school boards have put forward anti-racism action plans over the past year, many don’t involve in-depth consultation with the Black community in Hamilton, says El-Dakhakhni.

“When the school boards operating in Hamilton currently create equity action plans to combat racism they don’t necessarily have the same community connections,” said El-Dakhakhni. “They don’t get to do the for you-by-you part of things. That was the role of our project, consulting with the Black community in Hamilton to find out what they need their school system.”

Along with the input from students and caregivers, the report includes in-depth consultation with a wide range of community groups, including The SPACE Youth Centre, Disability Justice Network of Ontario, The Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton & Area, NTRL Development, Never Gonna Stop, YWCA Hamilton and the Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association.

Commending the students “for their courage and strong advocacy,” Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chairperson Patrick Daly said the report supports the board’s commitment to active listening and the work of the Anti-Racism Education Committee established in September 2020. The board report included 22 recommendations based on information gathered from representatives of racialized students, staff and parents.

The board unanimously approved all recommendations in October. Daly acknowledges there is some overlap with the findings in both reports and says the board will study the HS4J document to consider each recommendation.

Daly agrees with the importance of educator competency training and says it is one of the key areas of overlap with the board report and that action in that direction has already begun.

“As a Catholic school system, one of the foundations upon which our faith and by extension our school system is based as a dignity of the human person,” said Daly. “So every student, staff member, parent should feel welcome in our schools. To use a language that our board developed many years ago, (HWCDSB) is a place where ‘each belongs.’ ”

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