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KKK hats case, principal called N word put York Region school board director in hot seat

‘Are we going to eliminate it 2 years under her watch? I don't think so.’
June 22, 2020
Dina Al-Shibeeb

Despite widely implemented reforms at York Region District School Board schools following a slew of headline-grabbing racist incidents starting in 2017, “Children are still being called the N word,” said Charline Grant, a longtime parent activist.

With these ongoing racist episodes, “there's no accountability, no transparency and no justice for the victims,” said Grant, a runner-up in the 2018 school board election.

Grant was a victim of this highly charged racial slur in 2017 from a former trustee. Her ordeal was among other incidents that tainted the school board’s reputation. However, 2017 was the year when former Ontario education minister Mitzie Hunter had two provincially appointed investigators probe these incidents.

This ushered some sweeping reforms.

Last year, the school board had more than 12,000 staff in its schools undergo mandatory equity training, focused on anti-Black racism. The school board now has its own anti-Black racism steering committee and approved, late last year, new permanent Indigenous trustee and Indigenous student trustee positions.

But there are challenges faced by YRDSB amid what’s described as “systemic” racism as well as an ongoing old legal case.

The volunteer-led Vaughan African Canadian Association, of which Grant is part, sent a letter to the school board’s trustees June 2, following U.S. protest waves reaching the Canadian shore following George Floyd’s death by police in Minnesota.

In the letter, the association called for the “firing” of school board education director Louise Sirisko, who took over the role in January 2018, for not proactively combating anti-Black racism and alleging that she made “racially charged comments.”

The association cited multiple grievances, including an ongoing civil lawsuit case. The lingering case dates back to 2010 when twin brothers, aged 13 at the time, were taunted with a KKK hood and racial epithets by different students in separate incidents at Stonehaven Elementary School.

The twins’ mother, Jacqui Testoni, is still looking for justice. Testoni was seen June 6 in a York Region protest for Black Lives Matter wearing a mask and carrying a slogan, “KKK hats should not be in school.”

Torstar media reached out to Testoni's lawyer for comment, but hasn’t received a statement. Also, according to the school board, “To ensure that privacy is protected and upheld, we are not able to speak to any incident that involves students. This is especially true in matters that are involved in or subject to litigation.”

However for the association, Sirisko isn’t doing enough to put an end to this matter she inherited.

“There is an ongoing legal matter in your board with Black children who were accosted by white children who put KKK hats on their head, and your board refuses to settle their case,” the letter said.

“This letter is to show our support for the firing of director Louise Sirisko. Director Sirisko has made racially charged comments to our executive director, Shernett Martin, by referring to her as the “female Desmond Cole.””

In a conversation with Grant, she explained how this isn’t a compliment or appropriate since the director “already deemed Desmond to be a troublemaker because he disrupts the system into forced changes.”

Cole is a journalist and firebrand activist.

Sirisko: 'Much remains to be done'

“While we have made some progress, much remains to be done to ensure Black students can have equitable outcomes,” Sirisko stated in an email.

“We continue to value the input and work of our community partners who form the anti-Black racism steering committee, including VACA.”

Sirisko also elaborated on her meeting with the association's Martin.

“In meeting with Ms. Martin, I did compliment the effectiveness of her advocacy and likened it to that of Desmond Cole, who has effected positive change throughout the GTA and in Canada. In fact, Mr. Cole is rightly a national bestselling author after writing about some of his advocacy work. Ms. Martin’s voice was invited to the table and is valued as we continue to build positive outcomes for all our students.”

In an online message published June 16, Sirisko also announced how Turner Consulting Group has been selected to develop the school board's anti-Black racism strategy.

"We look forward to reviewing the strategies identified and implementing the recommendations," she wrote, noting in the year ahead, the board is committed to publishing the strategy.

The director also listed a plethora of steps taken by the school board to champion equity, address incidents of anti-Black racism and "update on our progress this year and details on our plans for the year ahead."

This month, close to 1,000 staff members from across the system are attending a webinar on being responsive to racial trauma related to anti-Black racism, Sirisko wrote of one of the 14 actions taken by the school board.

'We are deemed as troublemakers'

When asked about how Black activism is perceived and if it’s seen as radical, Grant said, “We are deemed as troublemakers.”

But Black parents activism is in line with continuous anti-Black racism incidents also coming from minority groups, which are “traumatizing” for the children and students involved.

Grant gives an example of how an Asian mother, who was carpooling and it was time to pick up a group of students after a basketball game, noticed one Black student.

Grant said the mother told everybody to get in, “except for you,” in reference to the Black student.

“This happens,” she said in frustration.

“When these racial experiences happen, the investigation needs to be swift. The justice needs to be swift, because if they want to prolong it, it just creates trauma upon trauma,” she said. “It seems as if there is no reporting protocol, because in the incident where the kid didn't get picked up from this basketball game, the principal was made aware of it, but nothing was done.”

Due to this lack of speedy mechanism to bring justice, students aren’t only re-victizimed, but there is also no healing because it’s just relentless, she said.

“If the complaint involves a teacher or a staff member, we never get to hear the results," she said, adding how parents are still forced to either go to the media, file lawsuit or go to the Ontario College of Teachers themselves.

The school board notes changes are occurring.

“My budget has been quadrupled. I have additional staffing,” Cecil Roach, co-ordinating superintendent of education -- Indigenous education and equity, said, signalling how the board is fighting back and bringing reforms.

Roach, who insisted that the board has very clear protocol, added, “We were able to develop anti-Black racism training for the whole board in October. We have this pocket guide that has gone out to all schools. We are offering webinars on racism and anti-Black racism.”

“Right now. We have a webinar on the trauma of what has happened and in the States.”

However, when addressing the claim that Sirisko isn’t an effective director when it comes to combating anti-Black racism, Roach said, “ this director has done more to address anti-Black racism than any of the other directors.”

“I mean, do we need to do more?” he asked. “Absolutely.”

He said the anti-Black racism steering committee, which the association is part of and now represented by Grant, is made of parents and students who have experienced racism.

The main goal is to develop a three-to-five-year anti-Black racism strategy, to serve the board.

When asked about the carpooling incident, Roach urged parents to contact his department in case of these incidents.

“That's anti-Black racism.”

“We have a lot of work to continue to do about this,” he said, describing how these incidents stem from how Black boys are seen as aggressive and threading.”

“We're working on changing that mindset of people's perception.”

With some data collected by the board, Roach describes how Black and Indigenous students feel their “sense of belonging, when it comes to learning, is not the same as other social identities.”

“I have hope in this generation of students who are growing up ... you're seeing that from the people out there demonstrating and raising their voices that they can see through the dehumanization of Black bodies,” he added.

Roach reiterated how the “goal” is to “eliminate anti-Black racism in our system.”

“Is that going to happen from 2018 (when Sirisko was hired) to 2020? Are we going to eliminate it two years under her watch?” he asked, “I don't think so.”

Police probe after principal called the N word

In April, a principal at Bill Crothers in Markham was called the N word by an unknown individual during an online meeting.

The individual “just kept repeating and berating her with the N word,” said Grant.

When speaking with Roach, he said the incident happened when the principal was meeting online using Zoom with Grade 12 students to talk about their graduation, and that the police are currently investigating to “identify” who was the person behind this.

“Quite often, we contact the police,” he said on how the school board is dealing with hate crime.

However, Roach insists that, “We hold the perpetrator accountable.” And if it’s a student, the board can “include suspension or expulsion.”

“We also try to build an education piece into (it). So, for example, we teach them about the history of the N word and how it’s a word rife with hate and violence and so on.”