Nova Scotia

African-Nova Scotian students being suspended at disproportionately higher rates

Black students are being suspended in disproportionately high numbers at school boards across much of the province, a problem one advocate calls a 'crisis' that is being paid too little attention.

'It's a crisis, and yet I'm not hearing an outcry,' says Council on African Canadian Education's chair

School suspension data from a number of Nova Scotia school boards shows African-Nova Scotian students are suspended at a higher rate than other students. (The Associated Press)

Black students are being suspended in disproportionately high numbers at school boards across much of the province, a problem one education advocate calls a "crisis" that is being paid too little attention.

An analysis by CBC News of data from five of eight school boards has found black students face out-of-school suspensions at a rate 1.2 to three times higher than the overall representation of African-Nova Scotians in the student population.

Education advocates say there are a number of factors behind the suspension numbers, including too few black teachers, a curriculum that is not Africentric enough, cultural clashes between teachers and students, and poverty.

"It's not news to the black community," said Kenneth Fells, a principal at Cole Harbour District High School.

Fells said little has changed in the education system since a 1994 Black Learners Advisory Committee (BLAC) report that pointed to systemic racism in the provincial education system. Fells worked as a researcher on that report.

He said the experience of many black students is they don't see themselves represented in the curriculum or in the teaching staff, and they don't believe they are treated fairly.

"We're still talking about the same things that I talked about when I was in school," Fells said. "We're still talking about the same things [from] when my parents were in school."

Highest numbers in Halifax

The suspension numbers were most pronounced in the Halifax Regional School Board, according to data from the first semesters of the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years.

  • In the 1,418 out-of school suspension cases in 2014-2015 where students self-identified their race, 18 per cent were of African descent even though students of African descent made up about seven per cent of the overall student body.
  • For the same time period in 2015-2016, there were 1,646 suspensions. Students of African descent accounted for 22.5 per cent of the suspensions in the 1,038 cases where students self-identified their race. Black students represented 7.8 per cent of the overall student body that semester.

The chair of the Halifax Regional School Board said addressing the disproportionate suspension numbers is a priority for the board.

"We have an issue that we need to address," said Dave Wright.

He said the board has hired two specialists in culturally relevant pedagogy to work with teachers to help them better understand how to teach students from different cultural backgrounds. The board has also hired more support workers to specifically work with African-Nova Scotian students.

Lowest numbers in Strait region

On the lower end of the suspension spectrum was the Strait Regional School Board, which runs schools in Antigonish, Guysborough, Richmond and Inverness counties. 

The percentage of cases where students self-identified their race was 49.3 per cent in 2014-2015 and 46.6 per cent in 2015-2016.

  • In the 2014-2015 school year, students of African descent accounted for 2.4 per cent of the 458 out-of-school suspensions, while representing two per cent of the student population.
  • For the 2015-2016 school year, students of African descent accounted for 2.98 per cent of the 605 suspensions and represented 1.93 per cent of the student body.
Principal Kenneth Fells said there needs to be more support programs for African Nova Scotian students. (CBC)

The suspension numbers for African-Nova Scotian students in the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, Chignecto-Central Regional School Board and Tri-County Regional School Board were greater than in the Strait Regional School Board, but below those of the Halifax Regional School Board.

Between 21 to 70 per cent of students self-identified their race, depending on the school board.

CBC News couldn't determine whether the data from the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board is for in-school or out-of-school suspensions, or both.

In school vs. out-of-school suspensions

Out-of-school suspensions result in a student being sent home for a maximum of 10 days. Students can also receive in-school suspensions where they continue to do schoolwork in a place like the principal's office or a resource room.

Two school boards—Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and South Shore Regional School Board—said their data didn't track student race, while the numbers at Conseil scolaire acadien provinciel were too small to work with.

Irvine Carvery, the chair of the Council on African Canadian Education, said if the higher proportion of suspensions related to a demographic other than black children, immediate action would be taken.

"It's a crisis, and yet I'm not hearing an outcry," he said.

Root causes

Activist Tina Roberts-Jeffers said some students are likely going to school hungry, given black Nova Scotians are more likely to be unemployed and have lower average incomes than whites.

While she wasn't surprised by the suspension numbers, she said they're indicative of an education system that has an "unconscious bias" against black learners.

"It's just not true that black children do more things that should lead to them being suspended," said Roberts-Jeffers. "It's just not true that black children don't have the same intellect as other children, but that's what the system would tell you."

Student testing results

Academically, black students lag behind their peers. According to reading, writing and math assessments for students in grades 3, 4, 6 and 8, the percentage of African Nova Scotian students that meet the standard trails the overall student population.

Carvery worries about the impact this has longer term, especially when coupled with higher suspension numbers.

"Without a good education, what tends to happen is our young people tend to be in trouble with the law and end up in the justice system," he said.

Education department response

Neither Education Minister Karen Casey nor the deputy minister were available for an interview. In a statement, spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn said the department is working to modernize the education system for the benefit of all students through its Education Action Plan.

"We are working toward ... introducing culturally responsive programming and increasing the supports available for teaching and learning," she wrote.

"We are providing students and teachers with more access to culturally relevant resources. Student support workers are providing students with strong mentors and role models and working to build strong relationships between home and school."

Fairbairn said the department is also investing in research and supporting the development of community-based programs, such as working with Between the Bridges, the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute and the Black Educators Association.

The Council on African Canadian Education's Irvine Carvery called the suspension numbers a 'crisis.' (CBC)
Fells said there needs to be more support programs for African-Nova Scotian students. He singled out the Black Educators Association's Cultural Academic Enrichment Program as a model program. It helps students with homework, numeracy and literacy skills in an "attempt to fill the gaps that are created in the public school system we have," said Fells.

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