Black mother sues school board for failing to protect her daughter amid rape threats, racial slurs
Racism, threats against 13-year-old have continued despite change of schools, mother says
Warning: This story contains graphic language and images
Natasha Shakespeare had hoped her daughter could have a more normal classroom experience this fall. Their family had moved into a different neighbourhood in the region in which they live, an area of southern Ontario located between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, and there'd be a new school for their 13-year-old daughter.
The youngster had experienced ongoing anti-Black racism and bullying, including racial slurs lobbed at her and other Black children during recess, at her last elementary school. Shakespeare, who felt repeatedly brushed off when she had reported these incidents, filed a civil lawsuit in March against the Simcoe County District School Board in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Shakespeare's lawsuit seeks $200,000 in damages, plus legal costs. The board has yet to file a statement of defence.
Note contained threats, slurs
However, the fresh start the Barrie, Ont.-area mother had envisioned for her young teen hasn't materialized.
"She got a note the first day of school [in September]. Someone had drawn a picture — hand-drawn a picture of a noose — and put it in her backpack," Shakespeare said.
This progressed to other disturbing harassment of the Grade 8 student, including sloppily scrawled racial slurs, threats of rape and missives goading her to take her own life. Shakespeare's daughter brought a note home three weeks ago, threatening rape.
Having experienced anti-Black racism herself while growing up in the same area, Shakespeare feels heartbroken that her daughter is suffering from the same 30 years later: targeted for abuse at schools because she's Black and receiving inadequate support from school leaders in response.
The situation has sparked a wave of emotions for Shakespeare: shock, horror and fear to anger and fury.
When Shakespeare contacted school administrators about the series of disturbing notes left for her daughter this fall, she says she was told "it was investigated and they concluded that they couldn't come up with anything."
'I don't feel it safe for my child'
In a separate incident, administrators suspended for several weeks a group of students who, in an online conversation, shared racist and antisemitic comments as well as threats of sexual violence against classmates. When Shakespeare discovered that her daughter had been referenced in this discussion, she contacted school officials, who said the suspension was deemed an adequate response.
"One of the boys that returned from the two-and-a-half week suspension targeted my child with an object and hurled some racial slurs — and that was the first day that he returned [to] school. My child called me and I had to go pick them up," noted Shakespeare, who sought support from advocacy group Parents of Black Children.
"I don't feel it safe for my child to be in the same space with these students."
While the online incident that led to the student suspensions was also brought to the attention of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), Shakespeare said neither she nor her daughter were interviewed.
Const. Liz Newton of the Huronia West detachment of the OPP confirmed to CBC News it has received incident reports involving the school and that police are investigating.
The Simcoe County District School Board declined an interview with CBC News for this story, but a spokesperson said in a statement that the board found the allegations "deeply troubling and concerning" and is "conducting a thorough investigation with the support of an outside agency."
The statement also noted the board's dedication to educating students and staff about systemic racism, and listed ongoing equity projects, including staff training on anti-racism as well as a review of student census data, "to guide [its] focus on programs, supports and resources."
'Changing the blinds … not changing the furniture inside'
Shakespeare's experience doesn't come as a surprise to her lawyer, Darryl Singer, who calls it a widespread, systemic problem at many school boards.
"What we see time and time again is when a white student goes to the principal, vice-principal [or] guidance counsellor and says, 'Sir, ma'am, this Black student has threatened me,' not only does this school swing into action … in many instances, my clients have had the police called on them," he said.
However, when Black students and their parents report bullying and threats, they're often lodging complaints repeatedly over months or sometimes years, according to Singer.
He says boards usually default to three frustrating responses: "'We didn't see it, we didn't hear it,' or … 'The student denied it,' and 'We talked to the student's parents: they're sorry it happened and now by the way, victim please forgive this student.'"
Having brought cases similar to Shakespeare's to court in Ontario and Alberta, Singer believes school boards must do more substantial work to combat systemic anti-Black racism.
"What we're seeing now with a number of school boards is they're changing the blinds … but they're not changing the furniture inside."
Training, policies 'only go so far'
As society becomes increasingly aware of anti-Black racism, sees more media coverage about it and hears of new policies enacted to combat it, the spate of recent, recurring stories about Black students experiencing overt and systemic racism should be giving us pause, says York University education Prof. Carl James.
When encountering these stories, James says his mind immediately goes to what came before.
"I keep thinking of what a school is not doing. What's the omission in our curriculum that we need to pay attention to right now?" asked James, who also serves as senior adviser on equity and representation at York's office of the vice-president of equity, people and culture.
In recent years, the education sector has been introducing various anti-racism efforts, from professional development webinars for staffers to establishing board-wide strategies to gathering race-based data about students. However, James says now is the time to put that work into action.
"Training is not enough.... Policies and data, for example, only go so far," said the Toronto-based professor.
"Paying attention to how they're being operationalized is absolutely important."
Along with having more diverse figures leading schools, making education decisions and developing curriculum, James thinks what's needed to more effectively tackle anti-Black racism is educators taking a hard look at what and how they are teaching students, as well as closely examining the atmosphere of their classrooms and the student relationships within.
Meanwhile, back in Simcoe County, Shakespeare is still searching for accountability and trying to figure out a school situation that's safe for her daughter. The teen's been at home for more than two weeks, still receiving texts and encountering Snapchat messages from students blaming her for the situation.
"I don't even know what regular teenage problems are anymore really," Shakespeare said.
"'If you go to school today, are you going to be threatened to be raped? If you go to school today and someone's going to call you the N-word?'… Those are the kind of things that we have to think about and she has to think about on a daily basis."
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.
- A previous version of this story said Natasha Shakespeare filed a lawsuit against Simcoe County District School Board in the Ontario Court of Justice. In fact, the lawsuit was filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.Nov 09, 2021 3:43 PM ET
With files from Nigel Hunt and Deana Sumanac-Johnson