Manitoba

Winnipeg School Division asked to reveal any racial disparities in student discipline

Tom Simms knows what the Winnipeg School Division will find if it starts investigating racial disparities among suspended students. The community activist says it's a "no-brainer" that students from minority groups are over-represented in student discipline. 

A 'no-brainer' that students from minority groups are disproportionately suspended from school, activist says

The Winnipeg School Division does not currently record suspension data based on race, but may start to, at the direction of school trustees. (CBC)

Tom Simms says he knows what the Winnipeg School Division will find if it starts investigating racial disparities among suspended students. 

The community activist says it's a "no-brainer" that students from minority groups are over-represented in student discipline. 

"I'll just be blunt: it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out," said Simms, who serves as executive director of the Community Education Development Association in Winnipeg. 

Nevertheless, data helps. Trustees are asking WSD officials to break down 2018-19 suspension data by race, inspired by an eye-opening 2017 study that revealed nearly half of all expelled students in a Toronto school board are black, even though they make up around 11 per cent of the student body.

"These become dynamics that aren't unique to Winnipeg," said Simms, who previously presented the Toronto data to the WSD board.

"This is a challenge across urban centres, across Canada and other countries as well."

Racial disparity a widespread problem

Trustee Betty Edel asked last November for a three-year suspension analysis based on student demographics to identify possible trends. Her motion was referred to the policy and program committee, where she decided to ask WSD for race and credit accumulation data for 2018-19 as well. The committee's decision was explained at a board meeting last week.

The study on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) also revealed an important link between suspensions, and education. Disciplined students were more likely to be from minority groups, and suspended students were more likely to earn fewer credits than non-suspended students.

"We could have good intentions [with suspensions], but if we're contributing to a youth disengaging from school then we really need to look at that," Edel told the board in November.

She also called on the division to incorporate more restorative justice approaches as an alternative to suspensions. She questions if students are better served learning from their mistakes in-house than being excluded from class.

Edel called the TDSB a leader for releasing suspension data based on race and credits. She is asking for the same information to inform future discussions around suspensions, a discipline practice that still has its place, she said.

"Let's just put the facts on the table," Edel said. "Let's not work with assumptions."

Data isn't collected: WSD

The division does not currently collect suspension data by race, WSD spokesperson Radean Carter said, but administration would start collecting the data going forward, if the board directs it.

Jim Spyropoulos, TDSB's executive superintendent of human rights and Indigenous education, is thrilled to hear Winnipeg's largest school division may follow their lead. 

"I think it's the direction that many other jurisdictions will be going because it gives you concrete information that you can use to drive success and improvement for all students," he said.

Spyropoulos said there's a higher level of awareness among staff confronting their own biases, which are sometimes unconscious. As a result, the number of suspensions has dropped from 7,000 two years ago to around 5,000 last year. He said the gap between the rate of non-black and black students who are suspended is narrowing. 

Carl James, an education professor at York University, led a 2017 study analyzing the percentage of expulsions with students' racial identity. (York University)

In Winnipeg, Edel doesn't want to point fingers at those who dole out suspensions, "but sometimes when we do things with good intentions, the impact we have on people is very negative."

It's important to realize the role that race plays in the assumptions made about students, and how they're treated, said Carl James, a York University professor who authored the 2017 TDSB study.

The number of out-of-school suspensions is slowly dwindling in the WSD.

The division suspended 986 students in 2012-13, but that figure dropped to between 713 to 770 in the next five years, according to a divisional report.

Male students receive two-thirds of the total number of suspensions every year. 

WSD has previously credited the use of restorative justice with a decreasing number of suspensions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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