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Child pulled from class ‘crying for help’: expert

  • March 10, 2022

An investigation is underway of an incident where police were called on a four-year-old student at John Sweeney Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener, Ont.

The incident, which took place in November 2021, has prompted advocates for Black families to speak out about police being called to a kindergarten classroom. The child’s family is Nigerian. Fidelia Ukuaje, president of Nigerians in the Region of Waterloo, is acting as a spokesperson for the family and believes the incident is a clear case of anti-Black racism. Advocacy group Parents of Black Children has also condemned the action and is calling for the removal of the principal and director of education. Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has also condemned the handling of the incident.

“Under no scenario should police be called to remove a four-year-old student from a school in this province,” said Lecce in a statement. “Black and racialized parents continue to deal with these unacceptable situations that only demoralize and harm their children and families.”

Psychotherapist Leslie Ann Smith, co-founder and clinical director of Kahle Therapy and Consulting Services, co-runs a Black focused agency with a goal to addresses the impact of systemic and social injustice on Black and marginalized people. The agency was born after Smith’s 14 years’ experience working in mainstream mental health services where she observed the disparity in treatment for Black clients and staff that often exasperated their mental health concerns. 

The situation she believes points to “adultification” bias, a phenomenon where adults perceive Black children and youth as being older than they are, more intellectually advanced at their age and therefore their behaviour perceived as more wilful and deliberate. Black students, parents and scholars for some time have been calling out the role that the school systems play in systemically perpetuating the criminalization of Black boys and girls. Racial profiling that comes as a result of negative stereotypes about Black and Indigenous people has led to the over surveillance and over punishment of these students in the education system. Calling the police is criminalizing the child, she says, and is absolutely a set-up for a way of continually treating that child.

“Black children are seen as more responsible for their actions than white children,” said Smith. “Often times depending on the hierarchy of race, other racialized children can still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent. Black children don’t have that luxury. We don’t have that privilege. So, when our children are harmed and abused, little is done. There is no repercussion for it. People can throw up their hands and say they didn’t know and that they apologize. Say things like ‘We’re at the beginning of our learning journey’ and all these kinds of dismissive notions that deny our lived experience, that gaslight us and that re-traumatize us.”

According to the police report, the principal of the school called the police regarding “a student in crisis who was said to be acting violently,” on Nov. 29, 2021. The student was placed in a “safe and secure room” at the school while police were enroute. Upon arrival, police began to work with the student in attempt to de-escalate the behaviour. Officers were able to locate a family member after school officials advised they were unable to locate the student’s parents. Police drove that student home to be cared for by family and were able to speak to the student’s parents about the incident. There is no report of a weapon being involved. Sources confirm the child was not a threat to other students.

Smith agrees that in handling a young child with no weapons involved there is no scenario where it would be appropriate to call the police, and finds it difficult to understand how people working with children would not have the ability to de-escalate.

At the base level, a four-year-old is grappling with being able to communicate emotions in a way that is effective and still learning emotional regulation, says Smith. If they learn that the adult caregivers around them can’t provide a sense of safety and assurance it can lead to feelings of insecurity.

It is clear, Smith says, that in this situation, the child did not feel a sense of security, which speaks to the environment and the adults around him at that time. When people are in high distress, they don’t have the capacity to problem solve effectively. When it’s a child who doesn’t necessarily have appropriate skills to emotionally regulate and problem solve, that situation is magnified.

“(When a child is in high distress) their emotions really take over and the only way they know how to communicate at that point is through their behaviour,” said Smith. “Often times if you see a child tantruming and acting out, that’s the child saying ‘pay attention to me, I need validation, I need someone to help me, I need to draw people in.’ It’s a cry for someone to help them soothe their emotional distress… In this case, this (child) felt something emotionally and didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively. All he knew was to act out and what he was really trying to signal is, ‘I need someone to pay attention to my needs right now, to figure them out and help me meet them,’ and (the educators) missed the boat. They didn’t see it.”

A provincial review of the incident is ongoing as well as a review by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB).“While the actions taken on this situation followed provincially established policies and procedures, we welcome the objective analysis and the opportunity to learn how provincial practice can be refined and improved to better serve all our students,” said Lorretta Notten, WCDSB director of education. “Perhaps through this review, a change in these policies may be considered.”

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