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Toronto Programs aimed at helping black students facing disciplinary issues can wipe slates clean

Ceyrina Craig sits with her 14-year-old son in their home in Toronto on June 22, 2018.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Ceyrina Craig didn’t want to believe her son’s school treated him differently because he was black, but the evidence was mounting. In Grade 1, his teacher complained about how he’d disrupt class by calling out answers. In Grade 4, after a white kid pushed him into a brick wall and he retaliated by throwing a basketball, he was sent to the office but the other student wasn’t. In Grade 8, after one of his friends was swarmed and beaten by a group of kids, he rescued his friend, but was later accused by the school of being one of the aggressors.

Then, this spring, the school called Ms. Craig to tell her that her 14-year-old son had been suspended. He’d asked why gay and lesbian were bad words, and his teacher accused him of using a homophobic slur – his tone, apparently, was the issue.

By the time they finish high school, 42 per cent of all black students within the Toronto District School Board are suspended at least once, compared with 18 per cent of non-black students. Ms. Craig’s son was to be part of that statistic.

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But weeks later, his destiny was reversed. The boy’s record was wiped clean – something he and his mother didn’t know was possible when the suspension was handed down.

At the end of their pilot year, programs in Toronto and Ottawa that help black students and their parents facing disciplinary issues have assisted in more than 200 cases such as the Craigs’. With grants of $100,000 from Legal Aid Ontario, the two programs have stopped 30 expulsions, helped shorten 33 suspensions and prompted the withdrawal of 47 suspensions – including Ms. Craig’s son’s.

While academics, governments and school boards grapple with how to address systemic racism against black students, these programs have emerged as one practical, relatively affordable back-end way to keep black students in classrooms, helping them avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ms. Craig learned about the Toronto program – The Plug – after weeks of late-night internet research as she frantically tried to prepare for her son’s disciplinary hearing. The Plug has given families free legal advice, provided them with lawyers at hearings and played an advocacy role in meetings and mediation sessions.

Days before the scheduled hearing, Silvia-Argentina Arauz, the school support supervisor with Ma’at Legal Services (one of the three partners behind The Plug) arranged for a mediation session between Ms. Craig and the school. Ms. Arauz said that disciplinary hearings, in which the school’s principal lays out the case against the student in front of a panel of three trustees who serve as a jury of sorts, closely mirror criminal justice proceedings, and that The Plug tries to avoid them whenever possible.

In mediation, after Ms. Arauz and Ms. Craig emphasized the unnecessary severity of the punishment and how the boy’s race had played a role in his treatment, the school agreed to scrub it from his record – a major win for Ms. Arauz.

“Students don’t get that it follows them around just like a criminal record,” she said.

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For Ms. Craig, it was a relief to finally have someone else in her corner, seeing the same injustices. “For years, I questioned myself, because that’s what discrimination does. It makes you feel like the problem,” she said.

The Toronto District School Board said it does not comment on individual cases, but Ted Libera, the central co-ordinating principal for the board’s caring and safe schools, said mediation sessions only happen when an advocate, such as Ms. Arauz from The Plug, is involved, and he supports parents using such resources. He said school administrators are encouraged to pursue progressive discipline and other supports for students before moving to suspensions or expulsions – which are considered “last resorts.”

Carl James, a York University professor who has published several reports about anti-black racism in education, said that while some students’ parents can hire a lawyer to represent them at an expulsion hearing, or persuade school trustees to overturn disciplinary decisions in private meetings, “if we find a disproportionate number of blacks are below a certain social strata, they may not have some that kind of social resources to wield that kind of influence.”

This spring, Ms. Arauz arranged for a mediation session for Jonathan Wilson, a Grade 12 student with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB). He’d been suspended after he was charged with an assault that had allegedly happened outside of the school. School administrators later moved to upgrade Mr. Wilson’s punishment to a “Fresh Start” expulsion, which would require him to transfer to a school populated by other students facing long-term suspensions or expulsions, an environment many have described as “jail-like” to Ms. Arauz.

In the mediation session two weeks after Mr. Wilson’s suspension, Ms. Arauz argued that the principal had ignored the mitigating factors in Mr. Wilson’s case: He was involved in many extracurriculars, planned to attend university in the fall and only needed one credit to graduate. She also pointed out that the school had breached protocol by not informing Mr. Wilson’s mother about the suspension the day it happened, and that his arrest should not prevent him from going to school, where he should be presumed innocent.

“If someone in my role is not there to ask, ‘Where’s the notice of suspension? What’s the appeal process?’ How is a parent to know? Most parents wouldn’t even know where to go in the Education Act,” she said.

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By the end of the mediation session, Mr. Wilson’s suspension had also been expunged from his record.

Nick D’Avella, the TCDSB’s superintendent of education who oversees equity, Indigenous education and community relations, could not comment on Mr. Wilson’s case for privacy reasons, but said he’d met with members of The Plug’s team and was encouraged by their work.

Legal Aid Ontario is still evaluating the success of the program and could not say whether funding will be renewed.

While Mr. James says there is a need for programs such as The Plug, he says the bigger issue is why black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates in the first place.

“Are they more likely to be surveilled? Are they more likely to be seen as disruptive for asking a question? More likely to be sent down to the office for things their peers are not?”

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