Punishment overturned for student suspended after taking on racism

Paige Sernowski, 16, still can’t believe her decision to call out what she saw as racist behaviour would earn her a two-day suspension from school

‘I’m glad it’s off my record,' Sernowski said

Paige Sernowski, 16, hired a lawyer to fight her suspension and have it removed from her school record. (CBC)

The Edmonton student who was suspended after attempting to draw attention to racism at her school, has won her fight to get her punishment wiped from her record.

Paige Sernowski, 16, has already served a two-day suspension from M.E. LaZerte school in north Edmonton, but with the help of a lawyer has now been able to get it rescinded.

"I never thought I did anything wrong," said Sernowski.

The Grade 11 student landed in trouble last month after spotting what she describes as a racist photo on Snapchat on Feb. 11.
The original social media post that Sernowski posted on social media. (Snapchat )

She still can't believe she was suspended for calling out something she thought was wrong. 

"It was stressful. I was worried about my record. It was a lot to handle." 

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."

She captured the image and quickly posted it on Twitter, aiming to expose something she saw as hurtful. But her efforts earned her a two-day suspension. 

"I took a stand for something I knew was wrong." said Sernowski, adding she hasn't felt welcome at the school since then. 

Poster at M.E. LaZerte

Following the suspension, Edmonton labour and employment lawyer Patrick Nugent offered his services for no charge.

His appeal letter argues that the suspension "is not in accordance with M.E. LaZerte or board policy" and that the decision "punishes a student for raising concerns about racism at the school."

Nugent adds that the result could create an environment where other students are discouraged from bringing forward concerns.

'Gross overreaction'

The appeal letter, dated Feb. 29, makes the point that Sernowski has already served her suspension, but asks it be removed from her academic record. Nugent also asks for Sernowski to receive a public and private apology.

"The decision to suspend Ms. Sernowski was an unreasonable and gross overreaction when lesser discipline or perhaps using this opportunity to teach Ms. Sernowski and her peers about the preferred method of reporting racist bullying online, would have been appropriate," the letter states. 

A few days later, the principal of the school confirmed the suspension was going to be rescinded and removed from Sernowski's record.

The principal met with the teen and her mother the next day to confirm that decision.

"I'm glad it's off my record and I'm glad they saw what they did was wrong," said Sernowski.

Still she says no official apology has been made, something her parents have also been hoping to see.

'It did make an impact on the school'

Sernowski is now keen to make a fresh start and move to another school, but is pleased to see some anti-racism initiatives happening at M.E. LaZerte.

"It did make an impact on the school." said Sernowski.

She said the student leadership group went from class to class asking people how they would react to seeing examples of racism.

Sernowski believes the same group is behind posters that have appeared at the school.

The father of the teenage student in the photo supported Sernowski's efforts to call out racism. 

Nasri Warsame welcomes the decision to rescind her suspension, but questions whether it would have happened if Sernowski's lawyer was not involved. 

Warsame also said the racist posting left scars in the hearts of many students hearts. He hopes the school is working on a healing process. 

The Edmonton Public School Board has never discussed the suspension with Sernowski, or what happened to the student behind the initial post due to privacy polices. 

But the board said any allegations of abuse or discrimination of any kind are taken seriously, and that the safety and dignity of students is paramount.