Black parents ask Ottawa public schools to collect race data

A group of black parents says learning the racial breakdown of students facing disciplinary action would help address racism in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

OCDSB part of provincial working group on the issue, says it will start collecting next year

Richard Sharpe, a member of the 613-819 Black Hub advocacy group, speaks in favour race-baced data collection at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board meeting Tuesday. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

A group of parents from Ottawa's black community are calling on the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to collect race-based data so they can fight discrimination in the education system.

Richard Sharpe said his 16-year-old son has faced undue discrimination at school.

"We found that he was being racially profiled. We found that he was being disproportionately penalized for small things," Sharpe said.

He and his wife were concerned race was a factor when their son was suspended for a day last year "for questioning an administrator as to why him and other black and brown students were being asked to shuffle along and remove their headbands while they were chatting in the hallway," Sharpe told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Wednesday.

He said it makes a climate where children like his don't feel safe or trust the administrators and often feel disengaged from the educational system.

Demand for data

Sharpe said other parents of children of colour have had similar experiences.

"Our children are being treated differently in terms of being suspended more, expelled more and being streamed into programs that are not academic," he said.

"I think that systems have been designed over many generations to [discriminate against black students]. I think there are good people in the system, there are good teachers and administrators, but I think the tools they have at their disposal are sort of outdated."

Richard Sharpe, left, and his wife Sandhya Singh say their 16-year-old son has faced racial discrimination in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Sharpe's family tried to get data from the OCDSB about how often black students are suspended or expelled — and why — but were told it didn't exist.

He said data collected at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), showed almost half of male students expelled from schools were black.

He wants the OCDSB to collect similar data.

"The hope is that we will be able to use the data to understand what's happening with the experience of black children in the school system, so that we can improve the [graduation] success rate," he said.

Last September, Ontario's Ministry of Education announced it would be collecting data, including race and ethnicity as part of its equity policy.

It's aimed at "identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias from schools and classrooms to support the potential for all students to succeed." 

Collection to start in coming year

At a meeting of OCDSB trustees Tuesday, Sharpe made the case that starting race-based data collection is urgent and it appears to him that the board is moving too slowly.

Jennifer Adams, the board's director of education, said the OCDSB is one of four boards in a provincial working group that is currently setting standards on how the data should be collected.

"Our intention is to go out and collect this [data] next year," Adams said.

Richard Sharpe, left, and his son, Mandela Singh-Sharpe. (Supplied)

The process has been slow because the OCDSB wants to take the results of the provincial discussions to parents and community groups to get them ready for the change, and to address things like privacy concerns and setting up IT systems for the data, she added.

Data currently exists on students who are English-language learners, have special needs and are self-identified Indigenous, but parents haven't been asked for other identifications, Adams said.

The new survey will ask parents and students to identify race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

"We'll gather as much information as we can to really cater our supports and services," she said.

'Discrimination takes place in our organization'

"It's really important," Adams said in an interview with Ottawa Morning Wednesday. 

"Every school system is looking to know the most they can about individual students and groups of students … do they need extra intervention or extra support?"

Asked about whether school board staff might need intervention, support and resources to fight discrimination, Adams said "absolutely." 

"I think discrimination takes place in our organization," she said.

"I think it takes place across society, and we've been very up front as an organization, saying that where there is systemic discrimination or racism that we will work with the community to help address that."

Jennifer Adams, director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said the board plans to survey parents on identity questions such as race in the coming year. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)