The Toronto District School Board is investigating complaints that the principal at one of its high schools engaged in racial profiling by compiling a list of black students and sharing it with teachers to examine opportunity and achievement gaps.
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In an e-mail to the school community earlier this month, Peggy Aitchison, the principal of the Etobicoke School of the Arts, admitted to sharing the list and apologized, stating that it was an “inappropriate approach to identifying gaps in supports.”
But her actions have angered some parents and students, and the school’s superintendent said in an e-mail to ESA’s graduating class that Ms. Aitchison has decided not preside over the graduation ceremony Thursday evening “in order to keep the focus of the event on students and celebrate their significant accomplishments.” The school vice-principals will take her place.
In her e-mail to parents, Ms. Aitchison said she shared a list of black students with the teaching staff at a November meeting. She said that the objective was to support student success, particularly those who may face inequitable access to opportunity.
“Upon reflection and discussion with others, I recognized that this was a limited, flawed, and ultimately inappropriate approach to identifying gaps in supports and so, that very same day, I retracted that compilation that was based solely on perceptions,” she wrote.
The TDSB said a human-rights investigation is under way. Ms. Aitchison did not respond to messages requesting comment.
John Malloy, the board’s director of education, said in a statement that a “mistake” was made by the principal that “hurt” students and their families, and “the principal and the TDSB apologizes for this.”
“In the TDSB, we are working with every school community to confront racism and all forms of discrimination. This is important and challenging work,” Mr. Malloy said. “While [the incident at ESA] should never have happened, we will continue this significant work of challenging our bias, removing barriers and creating equitable and inclusive schools for all.”
Some students recently learned about the list, and a meeting was held at the school last week with parents, students and staff.
The ESA, in Toronto’s west end, is one of Canada’s oldest arts-focused schools, and admission is competitive.
George Brown, a parent at the school, said when he first heard of the “black list,” he tried to console his son, whose name was included. But he was also angered and frustrated. Mr. Brown said that ESA is a strong school, but “we deserve better than this.”
“It’s unfortunate that this is an institution of learning and these are some of the lessons that are being taught,” Mr. Brown said. “We need the board to look at its processes. We need it to look at all of its schools to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Mr. Brown said he is in the process of filing a human-rights complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
His son, Noah, who is graduating this year, is a member of ESA’s black history committee and learned about the list.
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Noah said in an interview that he was also told yearbook photos of black students were placed beside their names.
He said that his work has been shown in a gallery, he has earned straight As and has been accepted into an art school in New York. “Once I saw the list, it made me feel as if though all these accomplishments meant nothing,” said Noah, 18.
“Personally, I felt as if the self-perception of my racial identity was both overlooked and exploited. It’s racist and extremely offensive to associate a student’s academic growth along with the melanin in their skin. I want the Toronto District School Board to understand the importance of looking at students as individuals, rather than categorizing their levels of intelligence into falsely-racialized groups,” he added.
He said that it was important Ms. Aitchison not preside over graduation so that all students “feel comfortable.”