Systemic racism not an issue in school board, says Waterloo Catholic education director

The director of education for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board has denied that systemic racism was a factor in a situation where police were called to John Sweeney Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener to deal with a four-year-old student's behaviour.

Province has ordered third-party review of situation

Loretta Notten is Director of Education for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

UPDATE: Since this story first ran, Loretta Notten has apologized and clarified the comments made in this story. Her statement on the matter can be read in full online

The director of education for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board has denied that a situation where police were called to John Sweeney Catholic Elementary School to deal with a four-year-old's behaviour is linked to wider issues of systemic racism. 

Speaking to reporters after a school board meeting Monday, Loretta Notten said the board holds itself to a high standard. She pointed to its equity action plan, which was part of the board's discussion Monday night.

"We certainly realize that we have room to grow and we're committed to that growth," said Loretta Notten, following an in-person meeting of the board of trustees Monday. "But I would take umbrage to the allegation that there is systemic racism in our board."

The school board has not commented on the specifics of the incident, citing privacy legislation, though regional police have said officers responded to the school on Nov. 29, 2021, after receiving a report of a student who was in crisis and said to be acting violently.

Review ordered

The incident has prompted criticism from advocates for Black parents, the local Nigerian community – and from the province's minister of education, who last week ordered a third-party review into how the school board handled the situation.

"Under no scenario should police be called to remove a four year old student from a school in this province," said the statement from Minister Stephen Lecce. "Black and racialized parents continue to deal with these unacceptable situations that only demoralize and harm their children and families."

Fidelia Ukuaje is president of Nigerians in the Region of Waterloo and is a spokesperson for the family involved. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Fidelia Ukueje, president of Nigerians in the Region of Waterloo, is acting as a spokesperson for the family of the four-year-old. She spoke to media last week, describing the incident as part of a broader pattern.    

"When we meet as a community this is what we hear ... our kids are being pushed through special education, our kids are are labelled as destructive when that's not the case," said Ukueje, who also disputed reports the child was being violent.

"Systemic racism, injustice in the school system — that's the pattern."

Director welcomes review

Notten told reporters she believes the province's review will lead to greater public confidence in the school board.

In a statement, school board chair Jeanne Gravelle said trustees also welcome the review, though they believe provincial policies were followed.

"As trustees we always place high importance on parental concerns and student safety and we are certainly taking this situation seriously," Gravelle wrote in an email Tuesday morning, adding the board couldn't comment further with the review underway.  

"Should this review lead to policy changes at the provincial level and additional classroom supports that work towards removing systemic racism, we welcome that, too."

Notten said she couldn't comment on how often police are called to handle classroom situations, though she said "it does happen."

"It is a most unfortunate situation whenever the police have to be called to a school and where a young student is involved," she said. "It is certainly never something that we would desire, and we understand that it can have profound implications for that young person, but sometimes it is a necessary course of action."