Quebec's Lester B. Pearson School Board urged to make schools a safer space

A review of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, one of Quebec's largest, is recommending sweeping changes aimed at making schools a safer space for students.

Wide-ranging report following racist incidents includes more than 100 recommendations

The Lester B. Pearson School Board ordered the report after racist incidents surfaced online last summer. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

A review of one of Quebec's largest English-language school boards is recommending sweeping changes aimed at making schools a safer space for students.

The Lester B. Pearson School Board released the final report of its Task Force on Equity and Inclusivity on Tuesday. It spans 143 pages and makes well over 100 recommendations.

The report was the result of an internal review launched last summer following a racist video showing two students singing a slur-filled song targeting Black people that circulated widely online.

In putting together the report, members of the task force — led by McGill professor Myrna Lashley — heard personal stories from students, staff, parents and community members. They released recommendations for how to address issues of bullying and discrimination.

Educators may not realize that they were doing some of things of which parents were complaining and which inadvertently hurt children.- Prof. Myrna Lashley

The report looked at how gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity and religion were creating barriers for students and contributing to bullying or exclusion they experienced.

During a news conference Tuesday, Lashley said she wanted to make sure the report covered a wide array of issues facing young people.

"What needs to change is the lens that's applied, it needs to be a holistic lens," she said.

After hearing from students, alumni and parents, Lashley said she was impressed by their candour.

"What surprised me was the ​willingness of people to talk, which told me that there was a lot of pent-up hurt."

Prof. Myrna Lashley led the task force. (Naskademini)

She said the concrete suggestions made in the report will help create spaces where kids and teens will be equitably treated and given the tools to be tolerant of differences.

"Every student who goes into a school anywhere, should be going into a safe place," she said. "No one should ever feel excluded in a learning environment."

​She emphasized that professional development for teachers and staff will be a key element of the work going forward.

"Something that I know may be difficult for some people to accept is the role of educators in creating that environment," she said. 

"Educators may not realize that they were doing some of things of which parents were complaining and which inadvertently hurt children."

Students speak up

The report includes excerpts of first-person stories with the names withheld. In one case, a student recounts being singled out by a teacher over his race:

"[...] there was a bomb threat called in at John Rennie. The entire school was evacuated to the Pointe-Claire arena down the street. Once there, a bunch of us were standing around. This was grade 11. Most of us in that group were South Asian, and Muslim. He knew that. He [the teacher] walked up to us and said, 'So where did you Muslims plant the bomb this time?'"

The report states that several Black parents said their children were being singled out by teachers and administrators.

"One boy told his mother that his teacher just doesn't like him because he's Black, and when asked why he felt this way, he stated that he knows this because there are white students doing 'worse' things, but they aren't punished as severely as he has been: they get spoken to by the teacher, whereas he is always sent down to the principal's office."

Lashley said that she's already been receiving calls from other school boards who are interested in the report and how some of its recommendations could be implemented elsewhere.

Having received the report on Monday evening, the Lester B. Pearson School Board said it will study the recommendations and come up with an action plan in the coming months.

Addressing anti-Black racism

The incident that first sparked the school board's commitment to address inclusion and diversity was one of anti-Black racism and the report has several recommendations about sensitizing and developing updates policies around these issues.

In the report, one student described instances of the N-word being used in school.

"During the play the school put on last year, the majority white cast would constantly use the N-word. One of the leads went up to a Black crew member and said it right in his face... A group of boys would use the N-word and joke about stereotypes surrounding Black people in class. They even did it within earshot or their one Black classmate. The school had set a precedent of protecting racist language and behaviours, so the boys were fearless."   

The report put emphasis on the need for training — both mandatory and optional for teachers and support staff, including janitors and people who work in cafeterias — when it comes to implicit biases.

It suggests teachers must be "trained to identify and omit books that contain harmful depictions" of groups marginalized because of race, faith, ability, class or gender.

It also recommends libraries be stocked with "materials written by and centred on Black, Indigenous, non-Christian, non-Western and (dis)abled people, as well as transgender, gender non-conforming, queer, and intersex people of these groups."

Gender-neutral bathrooms

The report involves a section on ensuring there are gender-neutral bathrooms and changing rooms available to students at all levels.

This includes a recommendation that the board do a thorough investigation of how many of their schools (elementary, secondary and the adult education centres) have these facilities.

"It is recommended that at least one all-gender washroom be installed in every floor of each building, in every major section of each school," said the report, which suggests pictograms showing gendered figures be replaced with "signage that shows which facilities are available, with pictograms showing a toilet, the presence of urinals."

The report suggests access to gender-neutral bathrooms as well as clear signage. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

The report also includes a suggestion that a "specific training package for teachers working with transitioning students" be created and that "each school has a LGBTQIA2s+ club space."

Moreover, the task force wants all schools to "clearly articulate the process by which a student may indicate their chosen name and gender and ensure that this choice is respected by all members of the school community."

The report outlines how language used in dress codes should not be discriminatory to any gender, and suggests that gym teachers "refrain from dividing class groups by gender whenever possible, so as not to alienate trans and gender non-conforming students."

Sensitivity around Indigenous cultures

The report recommends staff makes an effort to understand the differences that exist in Indigenous communities and cultures, when interacting with Indigenous students.

The group also advises the board to "develop and maintain an ongoing partnership with local Indigenous elders. Such a partnership should and can be used as a forum for the continuous review of student-directed policies to ensure that policies and school practices respect the reality of Indigenous students' experiences."

It also recommends the creation of a "cross-cultural immersion program" for non-Indigenous educators.

The task force goes on to suggest adopting "a restorative justice approach" and eliminating "exclusionary, punitive disciplinary measures such as suspension, expulsion, transfer and especially any and all police intervention in schools."

One parent told the task force how her child with ADHD reacted poorly to these kinds of punishments.

"Suspensions meant nothing to him, it only reinforced a message that he did not belong there. The teachers had nothing but punitive measures for him. They were no longer present for meetings with us, and the principal would defend their absence every time. We felt completely isolated and unsupported."

Teaching tolerance

On the subject of religion, the task force asks that non-Christian religious holidays be recognized and accommodation be offered for religious observances when possible. 

"The school board should avoid religious names for non-religious events. For example, use the terminology 'winter break' instead of 'Christmas break'," and it should ensure that Muslim students have a space dedicated for them to do their daily prayers, the report said.

Lester B. Pearson is one of the largest English school boards in Quebec in terms of student enrolment, serving 21,000 students in the youth sector and 8,700 in continuing education. The board oversees 37 elementary schools, 13 secondary schools and eight continuing education centres.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.