Indigenous students back to class with Saunders listening following racial tensions

Despite promises from the public school board to hire a police officer to patrol Saunders Secondary School, one mother still didn’t feel safe sending her son to class on Monday after racial conflict erupted in a nearby mall parking lot the previous week.

Confrontations hit fever pitch among students at the south London high school last week

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Despite promises from the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) to hire a police officer to patrol Saunders Secondary School in south London, one Indigenous mother still didn't feel safe sending her son to class on Monday after racial tensions flared the previous week.

Instead, Erica Elijah drove past the school during the day, by herself.

"There was a presence of our own Indigenous community supports and parents, concerned parents, actually outside on the mall parking lot," she said.

"I also saw police presence, there were two cruisers there and that gave me peace of mind that there aren't going to be more incidents."

On Tuesday, Elijah sent her son, who is in Grade 10, back to class.

Elijah was among those who attended a meeting Friday between school board officials and community members from Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee Delaware Nation to discuss escalating tensions and reports of fighting in the parking lot of the nearby Westmount Mall.

That same day, First Nation communities cancelled bus service to Saunders, citing fear for student safety.

Saunders principal listening

Saunders Secondary School principal Sarah Khan told CBC News that Friday's meeting highlighted a need for strong relationships between students, school administrators and the community.

"[So] that we can … work together to have a good school, so that we have great programs in the classroom but also so that we have that safe learning environment that every student and every parents wants," she said.

Buses from Oneida Nation of the Thames were running again on Monday. Another outcome of the meeting was that the TVDSB hired a police officer to patrol the school and ensure student safety.

But Elijah wants education about Indigenous peoples to be part of the solution too.

"That racial problem has been going since before I was even a student there," she said. "It's more important that we get along and we learn how to help each other … in order for us to do that, we have to know a little bit about each other. There's a learning that has to occur between the two groups."

Khan says the school board has been working with various community partners to address the issue on both sides. She said education will be part of the solution, but that they're planning carefully and don't want to do anything impulsively.

"We're communicating that with students as they come up, and we'll certainly be communicating that with parents and families to say 'this is what we're thinking, what's your input, how can we all work on this?'"

Khan also addressed Elijah's frustration that parents and students felt like they weren't heard when they first expressed concerns for student safety.

"Yes, I heard that people felt they were not heard. As a school administrator, that is not the first time I've heard that. We sometimes have situations where students don't know how to get their message out," she said.

"Our school board has been really good over many years about providing opportunities for student voice. We've provided a forum, and now we've got to listen to what we've got in terms of input, and put some things into practice and into action so that everybody does feel heard and valued in our community."