Report calls for end to program that involves police officers in public schools

A new report calls for Hamilton's public school board to terminate a program that places police officers in schools, and recommends the board review its policies on racism, discrimination and Islamophobia.

'We're hoping it's going to spur some very real, honest discussion," says trustee

Batool Dahab, a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help shares her experience with discrimination and Islamophobia during a media conference outside city hall Wednesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A new report calls for Hamilton's public school board to terminate a program that involves police officers in schools, and recommends the board review its policies on racism, discrimination and Islamophobia.

The report, titled Deconstructing Racism and Islamophobia, is based on written submissions, complaints and discussions with HWDSB students who agreed to share their experience, according to the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI) which put it together with information gathered by a group called HWDSB Kids Need Help. 

It's not clear how many submissions or complaints the report is based on, but the groups say hundreds of students and families were consulted over the past four years.

The board refuses to take racism and discrimination seriously on a systemic level, instead relying on "Band-Aid solutions," said Gachi Issa, a 20-year-old who attended Westdale Secondary School and a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help.

Sabreina Dahab, also a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help, said: "Marginalized students face high levels of racism, discrimination, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism specifically homophobia and ableism."

Maria Felix Miller, the HWDSB trustee for Ward 3, attended the media conference and told CBC the board has received the recommendations and will be "pursuing them further," noting questions around police involvement in schools "warrants deeper ... discussion."

Police say they welcome feedback

Police spokesperson Jackie Penman said in an email to CBC the goal of the Hamilton Police School Liaison program is a partnership with school boards and its goal is to build relationships, provide education and help with investigating incidents.

She said the service welcomes feedback that would improve the program and ensure it serves all students.

"We are a learning organization and we encourage feedback to strengthen and ensure the School Liaison program is responsive to all communities," she said.

Shared stories

During a media conference about the report Tuesday morning, past and current HWDSB students shared their stories and spoke about ways the board can take on racism and oppression.

They shared experiences of feeling isolated when forced to confront discrimination.

Chyler Sewell, a Grade 12 student at Westmount Secondary School, said she felt alone and unsupported when discussing her Anishinaabe heritage throughout her school experience.

In Grade 3, Sewell said her teacher spoke about Indigenous people as if they don't exist anymore.

"It's small things like that that get me thinking about how racism exists in school systems in relation to Indigenous people," she explained.

Chyler Sewell said she hasn't felt supported by the HWDSB when speaking about Indigenous issues. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Sewell sasid she's continued advocating for Indigenous youth and access to mental health support in high school, but has experienced "less than ideal support" from the HWDSB.

Greg Dongen, a Grade 12 student at Bernie Custis Secondary School, said he can't even count how many acts of racism students have experienced there.

He explained many of those acts are subtle, but also pointed to a recent example that was far more blatant.

In November a student spelled out the N-word in large block letters in the snow on the school field.

Greg Dongen, co-president of the Black Youth Council at Bernie Custis Secondary School spoke about countless racist incidents students have experienced. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"I feel like racism in the HWDSB board is not confronted head on," said Dongen, who is also co-president of the school's Black Youth Council.

"If we don't work on racism reform in our school we're going to continue to have a  society that's built or racism."

Student stories 'heartbreaking'

Miller said the incident at Bernie Custis resulted in an expulsion.

"The board called that one what it was right off the bat. It was hate crime. It was meant to dehumanize … the black students at that school and it was disgusting."

Miller described the experiences students spoke about as "disheartening" and "heartbreaking."

"It was very, very concerning, but it was very important for us to be here and bear witness to the stories we all heard," she said.

"[This was] really important work here today and we're hoping it's going to spur some very real, honest discussion about how we implement, how we dig deeper here."

Ward 3 trustee Maria Felix Miller said the board has received the recommendations from the report and will be pursuing them further. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The HWDSB has added a human rights and equity officer to its staff in recent years, and has launched a three-year equity plan to take on may of the issues that were brought up Tuesday, said Miller.

She noted some of the people who spoke out during the media event are part of the board's human rights and equity committee, so they're currently involved in working on solutions to the problems they spoke about.

Among the report's key findings are that there's some student concern around police presence on school property, as well as concern about Islamophobia and what's described as "disproportionate application of religious accommodation policy."

Report says racism is 'institutional' at HWDSB

It recommends the board end what it referred to as the School Resource Officer (SRO) program across all public schools — adding the HWDSB should take "immediate steps" to follow the lead of the Toronto District School Board, which voted to end its own SRO program in 2017

The local program, differs from the Toronto one that was ended. In Toronto, officers were actually stationed in a number of schools, whereas in Hamilton officers are not posted to schools but are called in as needed or to do proactive sessions.

The board should also set up an independent, external review of "all forms of racism, discrimination, Islamophobia" and the RSO procedures across schools which will later be shared with the public, says the report.

Finally, it recommends that all HWDSB staff, teachers, EA's and administrators should take part in mandatory anti-oppression training administered by an independent body.

Miller said she hasn't been with the board long enough to speak to whether or not racism is an institutional problem, but said it's clear members of marginalized communities continue to face barriers.

"From what I've heard from some of our students, yes, representation is an issue for them," said Miller.

"They don't see themselves necessarily in our staff all of the time and the issue of microaggressions and feeling like they have a very clear way to report is a bit broken."