The Durham District School Board is investigating allegations that a teacher at a Whitby, Ont., school referred to a group of black students as a "n--gerfest" during a school sporting event.
The mother of one of the students, Jennifer, whose last name is being withheld to protect the identity of her son, said she was in disbelief when she heard about the alleged incident at Donald A. Wilson Secondary School on Feb. 13.
'We saw two teachers walking towards us [inside the gym] and that's when we heard the remark. So after that we stopped, we kind of looked at each other and I asked if she heard what I heard. She said that she did.'
- Grade 10 student who said she witnessed the incident
According to a student who is said to have witnessed the incident, Jennifer's son and his friends, who are all young black boys, were denied entry into the gym. No reason was given, and the boys waited outside the gym for their two girl friends, who were inside, to come outside and meet them.
"We saw two teachers walking towards us [inside the gym] and that's when we heard the remark," said the witness, a Grade 10 student who asked not to be identified. "So after that, we stopped, we kind of looked at each other and I asked if she heard what I heard. She said that she did."
She said they heard the same teacher who denied her friends entry into the gym say the place was turning into a "n--gerfest," and immediately told their vice-principal.
That night, when her son told her what happened, Jennifer was in disbelief.
"I was very shocked. I was extremely upset and hurt for him because several times he had said to me in Grade 9 and 10 that his teachers hated him," she said.
"And I would say, 'Well, maybe it's you. Maybe you need to work on your attitude. Maybe it's your interaction with them.' And I felt a lot of guilt when he told me this because I thought ... maybe it wasn't his fault; maybe it was actually an issue of discrimination."
The next day, Jennifer went to the school to report what allegedly happened, and said she was told by the principal that the school had already been informed.
Accused teacher still at school
Four months later, she says nothing has been done and that the accused teacher is still at Wilson.
"If my child had uttered a racial slur towards a teacher, they would have been immediately suspended. I would have been called right away, and it would have been dealt with," said Jennifer.
"I suspect that if I wasn't persistent and if the other parents weren't persistent, it just would have all floated under the rug and disappeared and never been dealt."
The superintendent of education for Whitby at the Durham District School Board (DDSB), Mohamed Hamid, said the school takes allegations of racism seriously, and that it is investigating.
'If my child had uttered a racial slur towards a teacher, they would have been immediately suspended. I would have been called right away, and it would have been dealt with.'
- Jennifer, mother of student allegedly the target of a racial slur
"We have contracted the services of a human rights law firm to look into the situation. We were made aware that the allegations did come forward," Hamid told CBC Toronto.
"As you can imagine, this is something as a district that we are taking very seriously. We have many existing structures and new structures that we are putting in place to recognize some of the challenges that we are seeing across the province of anti-black racism and racism in general."
The law firm hired by the DDSB sent out letters on May 5 to the parents of the children involved, asking them not to speak about the incident to any third party — including the media.
"We expect that all participants in the investigation will keep the investigation and any comments surrounding the allegations strictly confidential. This means that anyone involved in the investigation should refrain from talking about the investigation ...," the letter states.
The law firm said this is a standard practice.
"The aim is to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of the process and to ensure that the investigators receive original impressions not influenced by the perspectives of others."
"I think that the commitment of the staff at Donald A. Wilson is to ensure that any forms of oppression is removed for all groups to be successful at the school," Hamid said when asked why the teacher accused of uttering the slur is still on the job.
"As a district we do have a number of very significant projects, initiatives and belief statements that [state] we value all the members of our community."
Hamid also said the DDSB facilitated a black male empowerment conference last year, to "give them tools and the sense that as a district we do value them."
But Jennifer's son said the teacher has approached him in the hallways at school to try to discuss the incident without a parent present — something Jennifer says is inappropriate.
'You kind of feel like when I'm in class and you get in trouble and white kid gets in trouble for doing the exact same thing, sometimes you feel like the consequences are more severe for you.'
- Jennifer's son, student allegedly the target of a racial slur
Her son also said this isn't the first incident at the school of what he sees as racial discrimination.
"You kind of feel like when I'm in class, and you get in trouble and a white kid gets in trouble for doing the exact same thing, sometimes you feel like the consequences are more severe for you. Like you can see it, they are more severe for you and you don't know why."
The student who came forward with the allegations against the teacher said she was so overwhelmed by how the situation was being handled, that she wrote an apology letter to the teacher for bringing the incident to light.
"There is a lot of things that people don't tell you about high school and I didn't think that something like this would happen," said the student.
In the last two years, there have been two human rights complaints filed against the DDSB, involving other staff members, on allegations of racism and discrimination towards black students. Both cases were settled in mediation.
In 2015, a researcher, Akilah Haneef-Jabari, put together the only race-based data on suspension rates at the DDSB. The numbers showed that black students made up 5.5 per cent of the student population at Wilson from 2011-2013, yet they made up nearly 40 per cent of the school's suspended population. The DDSB could not comment on the results of the study.
Jennifer said that initially, the parents only wanted an apology and to know the teacher had been spoken to, but now, she's questioning the school's ability to handle allegations of racism and discrimination involving staff members.
'Our boys have learned that going forward and telling people gets you nowhere.'
- Jennifer, mother of student allegedly the target of a racial slur
"I don't think they take issues of racism seriously. I don't think they see it as an issue," said Jennifer. "Our boys have learned that going forward and telling people gets you nowhere."
When CBC asked the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation about the policies surrounding allegations of racist behaviour from a teacher, it said that was a question for the DDSB.
The DDSB has refused CBC Toronto's request for information on the number of teachers who have been removed or suspended due to allegations of racism or discrimination.
The OSSTF has also said it is unable to comment on the incident. CBC's attempts to reach the teacher were unsuccessful.