Flood of support for student suspended after trying to tackle racism

Many questions are being asked about why an Edmonton teenager was suspended earlier this month for trying to expose what she saw as racism at her school.

Fellow students and human rights groups rally around Edmonton teenager

Paige Sernowski was suspended from her high school earlier this month over a post she made on Twitter.

Many questions are being asked about why an Edmonton teenager was suspended earlier this month for trying to expose what she saw as racism at her school.

"We need to speak up, we need to stand up, and we need to support the victims, as well as those who report it," said Ahmed Abdulkadir, a human rights activist who works with the black community.

"For them to suspend, it's unbelievable."

On Feb. 11, Paige Sernowski spotted what she describes as a racist photo on Snapchat.

The original social media post.

The photo, taken in the hallway at her high school, showed a black student in the foreground with a caption underneath that read, "Get out of my way n****rs"

Upset about what she saw, Sernowski took a screenshot of the image and posted it on Twitter.

The next day, she was suspended from M.E. LaZerte high school for two days.

'Whistleblowers should be protected'

Abdulkadir believes that decision sends the wrong message.

"Whistleblowers should be protected," said Abdulkadir, who has faced racism himself and is especially upset the incident happened during Black History Month. "What she did was commendable, because without her no one would know it what's going on." 

People across the country have taken to Facebook and Twitter to express similar feelings.

The Centre for Race and Culture in Edmonton has written to the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, as well as school board trustees and the principal of M.E. LaZerte.

The organization, whose mandate it is to increase intercultural understanding and address issues of racism, said racism often goes unreported, and to suspend a student who raised the issue could have a negative impact.

"It's that concern for us that has a bit of a silencing effect on people, when they see that someone gets punished for that sort of thing," said executive director Vanessa de Koninck.

She wants to see the school board use the case as a way to deal with racism in schools.

'Constructive Response'

Her letter outlines a series of steps she'd like to see, including a process by which students can report discrimination in a safe way.

The letter also suggests providing anti-racism training to school staff, and developing leadership programs and student training to deal with acts of discrimination through support and positive action.

Making the point that racism is a difficult topic to deal with, de Koninck said the Centre for Race and Culture is happy to share its resources, such as research into best practices in dealing with discrimination.

"We are trying to provide a constructive response, rather than just saying. 'Hey, it wasn't such a great thing that happened."

Abdulkadir said he hopes lessons can be learned. He suggested schools should consider racial sensitivity workshops for all students.

"We cannot just let this one slide," he said.

The Edmonton Public School Board has not spoken about Sernowski's suspension, citing privacy policies

But a spokesperson told CBC News suspensions happen at the discretion of school principals and are enforced when codes of conduct are breached.

The school board said any allegations of abuse or discrimination are taken seriously.