Often called the N-word at school, this Nova Scotia student seeks to rid classroom of racism

Grade 9 student Sarah Walters said she's often called the N-word at her Hammonds Plains, N.S., middle school. She and her mother say administrators aren't doing enough to combat the racist behaviour of some students.

Sarah Walters, a Grade 9 student at a school in Hammonds Plains, N.S., says she is often called the N-word

Sarah Walters, a Grade 9 student at Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains, N.S., said she is often called the N-word by other students at the school. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

As one of few black students among a sea of white faces, Sarah Walters does not feel like she belongs at Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains, N.S.

The 14-year-old Grade 9 student is biracial. And she said she's often called the N-word in the classroom and in the hallways at a school that's ironically named after the first black woman to graduate from the provincial teachers college in 1928.

Sarah is used to having the vile racial slur hurled her way. She said it started in Grade 3 when she was a student at nearby Hammonds Plains Elementary.

Other black students, she said, are also targeted. Most of the current name-calling, she added, comes from white male students.

And when she complains to teachers and the school administration, "they don't really do much about it," she said in an interview.

"It doesn't make me feel good," she said. "It just like upsets me."

She's hardly alone.

Over a two-year period, officials at Nova Scotia's eight school boards recorded a total of 1,611 discriminatory incidents, 53 per cent of them involving racism. In the 2016-17 school year there were 851 instances of discrimination logged, a rise of 12 per cent from the year before.

The school is located in Hammonds Plains, near Halifax. (CBC)

The principal of Madeline Symonds said incidents are taken seriously, and the Halifax Regional School Board's senior diversity adviser said schools are required to respond with a range of consequences.

But Sarah's mother, Kristina Partington, who is white, said while she has pushed for something to be done about the slurs her daughter faces, there's been little change.

"I'm waiting for someone from the school system to stand up for African-Nova Scotians and to start … making this a more sensitive subject because I think racism in the school system is desensitized," she said.

'She would be shocked'

Other parents have also said they're unhappy with how the school has handled racist incidents. Andrella David said her daughter, also in Grade 9, has been called the N-word, and that black children are taunted at the school.

"If the late Madeline Symonds knew of the racial discrimination that took place behind the walls and in the classrooms of the school that bears her name, she would be shocked," David said in an email to CBC News.

"It seems racial slurs and stereotypes are welcomed at this school."

David, who was herself racially profiled and wrongly accused of shoplifting at a Sobeys grocery store, said she has brought up some of the racism her daughter has faced over the years with local educators, but her concerns "have always been swept under the rug."

Sarah's mother, Kristina Partington, said the school is not doing enough to stop racist incidents. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Sarah Walters counts herself as one about 20 of African descent in the school body of approximately 740 students at Madeline Symonds.

The latest incident, she said, happened last month. She and two white friends were putting up signs for their homemade candy grams when a boy walked into the class and said the N-word as he was walking by.

"I told the principal. I don't really know exactly what she did but she might have suspended him for one day," Sarah said.

In another incident at the school, she said a teacher told her and another black student that they had frizzy hair.

"We were all talking about what, like, what kind of hair we have and my friend said, 'We have curly hair,' and [the teacher] said, 'No, it's not curly, it's frizzy.'"

Partington said she had hoped the racial incidents would stop once Sarah started Grade 6 at middle school. She said they didn't. She recalled yet another incident when a boy called Sarah the N-word as they played a Scrabble game in class.

The teacher, she said, turned around and asked 'Who said that?' Sarah spoke and named the boy, her mother said.

"And the teacher looks at the student and says, 'Don't say that again,' and then continues with her class," Partington said in an interview. "There's a problem there."

The school's principal is white but one of the two vice-principals is black, as is a student-support worker.

The principal of Madeline Symonds Middle School said the school follows the province's code of conduct. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Principal Lynn Kazamel-Boudreau declined requests for an interview, saying it is inappropriate for her to discuss individual cases or confidential incident reports.

However, in a written statement she said that Madeline Symonds Middle School uses the provincial school code of conduct policy to respond to all incidents at all times and takes each one seriously.

"The code of conduct outlines both consequences for inappropriate behaviours and proactive measures," Kazamel-Boudreau wrote.

"At MSMS, we combine both approaches and understand the importance of educating students about their choices and support them in making better decisions in the future."

Schools required to track unacceptable behaviour

Partington has complained more than once, and met with school administration and representatives from the school board and the Black Educators Association, but she said she has yet to see any changes within the school.

"We all send our children to school every day in hopes that they can have a safe healthy learning environment," she said. "And that's not the case for Sarah, that's not the case for some of the kids going to this school."

Wendy Mackey is the Halifax Regional School Board's senior diversity advisor. (Wendy Mackey)

Wendy Mackey, the Halifax Regional School Board's senior diversity adviser, said when the incident starts at the school level, it's the principal that will work with students and their parents.

"And so if the child is being called a racial slur, well, that falls under racist behaviour within the code of conduct and racist behaviour includes using racial and cultural slurs."

Schools are required to record and track incidents of unacceptable behaviour through PowerSchool, a provincial online student information database, and respond to these incidents with a range of consequences.

"So if an incident is reported, it tells me that somebody paid attention to it, somebody acknowledged it, somebody named it and somebody followed the policy," Mackey said.

The board's diversity team is available to give advice to all principals, vice-principals and teachers, and to provide workshops following a racial incident.

"We are working continually to address all of these issues," Mackey said.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts.