Legal Aid Ontario lends support to black youth facing suspension from school

A $100,000 grant will support a program designed to help black students in conflict with the education system.

$100,000 grant will go to community centre-run program in Rexdale, Scarborough

Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter said the money will compliment an ongoing initiative to break down systemic barriers through Ontario's Black Youth Action Plan. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Legal Aid Ontario, the non-profit group of lawyers that specializes in representing low-income clients, is providing a major financial boost to a program designed to help black students who are in conflict with the education system.

The one-time grant of $100,000 will fund an initiative run by TAIBU Community Health Centre in Scarborough and the Rexdale Community Health Centre. It's set to provide legal representation, advocacy or counsel to youth in trouble at school, specifically if they are suspended or expelled. 

"This is an important area for us to get into," said David Field, the president of Legal Aid Ontario, adding that his client base includes many racialized individuals. 

At a Tuesday news conference, Field flagged troubling Toronto District School Board data that revealed almost half of TDSB students expelled over last 5 years are black.

High school senior Caleb Innocent said many students don't know they can appeal their suspensions. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"It was really necessary for Legal Aid to look at the impact on youth with their initial contact with the law," he said. 

The idea is that expulsion sends youth spiraling into the the criminal justice system and if they don't know their rights at disciplinary hearings, they're denied a fair chance at prosperity.

One grant, big picture change

"Let me just say it out front that racialized youth face challenges within our system," said Ontario Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter as she addressed an audience of community leaders at TAIBU. 

She described the grant as a big help in her government's crusade against systemic racism in schools and other sectors with Ontario's three-year anti-racism strategy.

When politicians put money in a system that's already broken ... it's not going to do much.- Arththy Valluvan, TAIBU Community Health Centre

"We have to actually fix the system at its source. We will be working to reduce the achievement gap between black students and all students in the education system," she said. 

The 'stay in school' struggle 

Caleb Innocent, a high school senior from Bowmanville, Ont., said it's easy to slip into a bad crowd because of peer pressure and some teachers who don't care to intervene. 

"Teachers aren't engaging with the students anymore, not engaging with the minorities, trying to teach them where they should be going," he said.

TAIBU volunteer Arththy Valluvan said Legal Aid Ontario is doing the right thing by injecting the funds into the community centre's program. 

TAIBU volunteer Arththy Valluvan said community centres can make the most of the money since they work more closely with local youth than politicians do. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"When politicians put money into a system that's already broken, of course it's not going to do much," she said.

"When you put the money into a community centre that exists for the purpose of helping the black community, that makes all the difference." 

Know your rights

According to Legal Aid Ontario, at both suspension and expulsion hearings, the student has a right to: 

  • Present their account of what happened.
  • Have a lawyer present.
  • Call witnesses.
  • Cross-examine witnesses.
Leaders at the community centres anticipate affecting real change in the education system by flagging racial biases in student's cases. (John Lesavage/CBC)