Current, former students speak out against alleged systemic racism at all-girls Catholic high school
Allegations at Notre Dame High School will be 'undergoing an external investigation,' TCDSB says
Former and current students at an all-girls Roman Catholic high school in Toronto's east end are coming forward with allegations of systemic racism by the school's administration.
The group is alleging there's been a pattern of anti-Black racist behaviour at Notre Dame High School for years and that they want to bring it to light.
Kadeisha Powell-Graham, the public relations representative for the group, said the current and former students sent more than 200 letters to the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB).
The letters include both joint and personal statements in which the students outline their complaints about how the school's administration handled an incident that took place last fall. All the letters start with the same three paragraphs, with the students adding their individual accounts below.
According to students' social media accounts, as well as personal accounts from former students, the incident occurred in October and concerned a student making a social media post mocking police brutality against Black people.
"A racist statement that was made public on her social media back in October, recently resurfaced in light of the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd movements," according to the joint portion of the letters.
The students said they began to voice their feelings to the administration, and to "share their story of their discomfort that this specific student made them feel because of their skin colour."
The joint statement in the letters then said a member of the school's administration contacted many students, "who were simply voicing their opinions and feelings" in the comment section of the student's social media post.
The statement says the students were threatened with suspension for cyber bullying should they not comply and delete their comments.
Now, months later, the TCDSB says the matter will be "undergoing an external investigation."
Though it couldn't comment on any details of the investigation, the board said while it strives to nourish "safe, healthy and caring" school communities, it acknowledges the existence of anti-Black racism.
"We acknowledge that anti-Black racism has devastating affects on individuals, members of our school community, and our society," the board said in the statement to CBC Toronto Thursday.
"There is no place for anti-Black racism in our schools."
School has covered up countless incidents, former students charge
Three former students spoke to CBC Toronto Thursday, alleging that they were repeatedly told by the administration during their time at the school to keep quiet about "controversial" incidents.
Sydni Taffe, Nigeleen Nwakobi and Flora Nwakobi graduated from Notre Dame in 2016, 2017 and 2019 respectively.
They say whenever there were controversies swirling around the school — related to issues such as bullying or discrimination — students were pressured to keep quiet about them.
"Students were told to try not to talk about [it]," said Nigeleen Nwakobi. "They weren't necessarily [asked] if they were okay or if they needed help.
"It definitely tells me that they're not necessarily as concerned about the students, and their safety and well-being; they're more concerned about how they're seen."
Her sister agreed.
"I think a lot of my experience was clouded by the administration and the way the administration treated me," Flora Nwakobi said.
As the school's student vice-president at the time, Nwakobi said she was often put in charge of running assemblies. She said the school's administration would intervene "whenever it had to do with vocalizing and bringing attention to the Black issues that we face in our community."
When she heard the incident from the fall was getting renewed attention online, she said she was not surprised.
"A lot of the time the administration tends to sweep things under the rug and not really bring a lot of light or attention to things that might paint them in a bad light," she added.
Now, the three young women are calling for transparency in the investigation.
"I think we just need to see administration held accountable," Taffe said.
"It's impossible to learn in an environment where you think, 'If something happens to me, I have nobody to go to, I have nobody to help me.'"
'I was honestly not shocked,' says student trustee
Taylor Dallin, a graduating student trustee with the TCDSB, said she wasn't surprised by the allegations.
"I feel hurt for the Notre Dame community, but I was honestly not shocked," she said.
She said the fact that the incident went unaddressed for so long is a symptom of systemic racism.
"What we've seen for far too long is that often-times students aren't believed or things get swept under the rug," Dallin said.
"This is not the first incident of racism that had happened in the school board and it won't be the last unless we do something to change it."
That's why, she said, she brought forward a motion to the board earlier this month with recommendations on dismantling systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in schools.
Today, I brought forward a motion with recommendations on dismantling the systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism which has been prevalent in our schools for far too long. Words mean nothing and are purely performative in nature if they‘re not coupled with tangible action. <a href="https://t.co/lvSXapo6hK">pic.twitter.com/lvSXapo6hK</a>—@taylor_dallin
While TCDSB trustee Maria Rizzo could not speak about the allegations, she said systemic racism is a problem and the school board needs to take action.
"We need to be willing to be open, transparent and public about out problems in order to fix them," Rizzo told CBC Toronto Thursday.
"If we're not doing that and we're sweeping them under the carpet, then it will never happen."
- A previous version of this article listed Maria Rizzo as chair of the TCDSB. She is, in fact, the trustee for Ward 5.Jun 26, 2020 9:25 AM ET
With files from Philip Lee-Shanok, Julia Knope