Mother to launch complaint after Toronto teacher allegedly compares son to a 'crackhead'

A Toronto mother says she plans to file a formal complaint after a substitute teacher at an elementary school allegedly made a racist remark to her 11-year-old son.

Grade 6 student, backed up by classmates, complained to principal's office

Isaiah Francis, left, with his mother Abigail Francis in an undated photo. (Submitted by Abigail Francis)

A Toronto mother says she plans to file a formal complaint after a substitute teacher at an elementary school allegedly made a racist remark to her 11-year-old son.

It's been more than a week since Abigail Francis's son Isaiah, a Grade 6 student, was stunned by the response from the teacher at Norman Cook Public School.

It began like any other English assignment.

Isaiah and his class had been assigned a poetry exercise called, "All the places we love" on Nov. 28.

He didn't quite understand the assignment, and asked the teacher for clarification. The alleged response left him speechless, according to his mother.

"It means like home sweet home. Or maybe for you, in a dark alleyway like a crackhead," Francis says the teacher told her son.

Shocked, Isaiah returned to his seat trying to make sense of what he just heard, his mother says.

That's when Francis says one of his classmates told Isaiah, "Listen dude, that wasn't okay. If I had gone up and asked the same question, he wouldn't have said that to me because I'm white."

Isaiah, his mother points out, is half-black, half-Indian and one of just three black students in his class. 

And while he didn't know what to make of the alleged remark at first, it didn't feel right.

"When he said what he said it felt weird and wrong, and that he was directing it to me, I felt offended," he says. 

Isaiah, 11, with his baby sister. Classmates accompanied him to the principal's office and corroborated his story. (Submitted by Abigail Francis)

Some classmates went with him to the principal's office and corroborated his story. 

"Having my friends talk about it with me made me feel a little bit better," Isaiah says. "I felt nervous to go to the office but my friends being there helped me feel more confident." 

When Isaiah came home, he told his mother what had happened and what his fellow classmate said to him.

"He put into words exactly what Isaiah felt," Francis said.

'Completely unacceptable' if true

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) says it is aware of the "troubling" allegations and that staff are "actively investigating to determine what happened."

In the meantime, says spokesperson Ryan Bird, the occasional teacher will remain out of TDSB schools.

"If the allegation is founded, it is completely unacceptable and goes against the considerable work the TDSB is doing to combat racism, bias and oppression," said Bird.

Even though an investigation was already underway, Francis could not file a formal complaint without the teacher's full name. Bird said she had it, but Francis says she didn't have more than the last name until after CBC Toronto reached out to the school board on Wednesday. 

Francis says some people have questioned how she could take the word of a child at face value. She says she has no reason not to — Isaiah normally holds things in.

Getting him to open up is usually "like a dentist trying to extract a tooth," she says, adding that his story has not changed after repeated interviews by the school.

"The statement was really specific," she said. 

Trying to find closure

Francis wants to know whether the teacher will have to apologize, whether he'll be forced to undergo sensitivity training, and whether he could end up in another classroom where another student could find themselves on the receiving end of such a remark. 

"These are things that are important ... then I can turn around and tell Isaiah and it can then bring closure to the situation," she said. 

The TDSB says it's too soon to know what the outcome of the investigation will be, though both the board's director and superintendent have apologized to Francis.

Meanwhile, she says the work of building back her son's morale is just beginning.

"I've spent so much time just building his confidence, only to have this one man remove that from him was painful."