Coyle: Schools must be better equipped to handle discrimination

With the return of warm weather and longer daylight, students begin to dream of carefree summer months. For some children, however, summer means more than a chance to be free from schoolwork; it means a reprieve from the misery of bullying and discrimination, much of which is reinforced by inadequate systems for responding to the intolerance and harassment students can face in school.

To address the reality of discrimination in our educational systems, the community organization Parents for Diversity was created in 2016 by four parents in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. The group’s goal – to support positive change in our schools – is the result of seeing first-hand their children experiencing insufficient responses to discriminatory behaviour targeting them. 

Central to the mission of Parents for Diversity is tackling the causes of the day-to-day reality of kids coming home sad, angry or afraid because they’ve experienced discrimination directed at the core of who they are as people: their race, sexual identity, gender identity, religion or their level of ability.

These incidents don’t always involve physical violence, but the pain the kids feel is just as grave and the harm can be long-lasting, affecting children’s sense of identity and self-worth for years.

For many parents whose children have experienced discrimination, the issue goes beyond intimidation and bullying by groups or individuals: A child being treated negatively because of who she or he is, is often a sign of a wider structural problem, when boards, schools, teachers and staff refuse to respond or respond unhelpfully.

Anecdotes of discrimination are often characterized as “isolated incidents” until they’re looked at together. For this reason, parents of black children recently asked the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to start collecting data that would allow them to identify if their children are being disproportionately discriminated against in school.

These parents know that their children have experienced discrimination; however, having this data will provide them with specific evidence to back up what their kids have been telling them consistently about feeling unsafe at school. For example, one of the children of a Parents for Diversity member says a classmate told her not to touch him, because he was allergic to people with brown skin. She, through tears, told her parents she wished she was white. 

When the parent raised the issue with the well-meaning teacher, she reacted immediately, speaking one-on-one with the boy and with the class, using the classic “Ugly Duckling” as a resource. As most who have read the story will recall, the swan finds happiness with others that look like it, reinforcing a message of segregation. Even more troubling for the parent, the teacher didn’t understand why that message was problematic.

For Canadians who pride themselves on our peaceful, multicultural country and history of welcoming those fleeing persecution, terror and war, it can be hard to acknowledge that discrimination is a reality in our communities. But it is happening today in our schools, fed by conscious or unconscious systemic bias, and we as parents and allies have a responsibility to ensure that all kids have a safe, healthy learning environment.

To this end, the long summer break is an ideal time for parents and caregivers to model kindness and empathy toward others and prioritize listening and talking to our kids about discrimination. 

Ultimately, we all want our children to be able to learn and thrive in our schools, and in order to do this, we have to be willing to expand our definition of school safety, have the difficult conversations and take concrete and thoughtful action when incidents of discrimination occur. 

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on May 22, 2019.