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Helping black students know their rights on school discipline

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JOANNE E. LAUCIUS

About 60 times a year, Abdirizak Karod will find an unexpected and agitated visitor outside his office asking for help on an urgent matter.

The problem: a child has been suspended or expelled and the parent has exhausted every avenue to come to a solution to get the student back to class. Often, the parent doesn’t speak English or French and can’t afford a lawyer. Enlisting the Somali Centre for Family Services, where Karod is the executive director, is sometimes the parent’s last shot.

Across North America, researchers agree that black students are disproportionately expelled or suspended from school compared with their white counterparts. It has long-term effects, from unemployment to gang involvement and high rates of incarceration, and has been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

This week, the Somali Centre for Family Services, which offers services to a broad range of ethnicities, was awarded a $100,000 grant from Legal Aid Ontario to offer legal representation, advocacy or legal education to black students who are in conflict with the education system.

“When kids are suspended, suspended, suspended, they drop out. Then they go to the illegal (criminal) system. And at the end of it, we all pay,” says Karod.

Legal Aid Ontario, a publicly funded corporation that provides legal assistance to low-income individuals, has been consulting with community agencies to develop a strategy for serving racialized communities.

“One of the things we have learned is that the parents of black and other racialized students don’t know what their rights are,” said Kimberly Roach, Legal Aid’s policy counsel on the strategy.

Among those rights: students have the right to be represented by a lawyer at both suspension and expulsion hearings, the right to call witnesses and present their side of the story, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to explain if there are other things the school board needs to consider.

Last year, the Supreme Court’s Jordan decision, which imposed strict time frames to ensure the right to a speedy trial, issued a challenge to the entire legal system to improve resources and create structural changes, said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, who announced the grant.

This project tackles that at a local level, he said. “We’re talking about resolving conflicts and keeping kids out of the criminal justice system.”

Carl James, the Jean Augustine chair in education, community and diaspora at York University, has recently finished a report on the schooling of black students in the Greater Toronto Area.

“In some of the stories we’ve heard, the parents say the teachers or the principal will have discussions with the kids, but the parents will only hear about it afterwards,” he said. “Anything that will bring parents knowledge about the school system and build a relationship with the school will be useful. And I think it will be useful for the schools.”

While school boards in Ontario collect data on suspension and expulsions, there are few statistics about school discipline based on race.

In 2003, the Ontario Human Rights Commission produced a report on the Safe Schools Act and school discipline and discrimination and concluded that there was enough anecdotal evidence to point to discrimination of racialized minorities. Those interviewed for the report felt that students from certain racial groups, especially black, Tamil, aboriginal and Latino, were treated more harshly than other students for the same offence. Among the recommendations made by interviewees was to collect statistics on race and school discipline, with the aim of addressing inequities.

In 2013, the Toronto District School Board released figures indicating that black students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students in the 2006-07 school year. While black students make up only about 12 per cent of high school students at the Toronto board, they accounted for more than 31 per cent of all suspensions, according to data from a survey conducted during the province’s No Safe Schools disciplinary regime. (Indigenous students were even more likely to be disciplined.)

The Peel District School Bard and Durham District School Board have since indicated that they will collect data based on race. But most school boards, including those in Ottawa, currently don’t collect this information, said Roach.

That may change. The Ontario government passed legislation on June 1 that provides new authority and a framework for collecting and reporting racialized data.

“This is an important step forward in strengthening and standardizing race based data use by school districts and other public agencies,” said Sharlene Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, in a statement. “The OCDSB, like all school districts across the province, will be doing important work on implementation of this bill over the next years.”

The Ottawa Catholic School Board recorded 1,154 suspensions in 2013-14, 1,100 in 2014-15 and 991 in 2015-16. Last year, the Catholic board expelled two students. In 2014-15 it was 13 students, and 10 students in 2013-14. The board has a multi-pronged approach to engaging students, including increasing the number of staff and schools that are trained to use restorative justice and circles and using personalized teaching and schedules, said spokeswoman Mardi de Kemp.

Race-based data is important to illustrate inequities. But James says some communities are wary about it. “They’re concerned it the data will reinforce perceptions or stereotypes.”

His recent research points to a major area of concern — third-generation black students are not doing as well as first- and second-generation students. “Maybe they know the system too well,” he said. “They’re cynical about the system.”

Karod has fielded complaints from the black community about all four Ottawa school boards, public and Catholic, French and English. His most recent complaint was about a 15-year-old student who was suspended and then expelled. That case is still in limbo because the school year has ended.

“I don’t think we can eliminate suspensions and expulsions, but I think we can reduce them,” he said.

The money for the Legal Aid Ontario pilot will last a year. Among the plans already in the works is a series of workshops to be offered to parents by law students. Karod hopes that fewer black students will be suspended or expelled as a result.

“But you can’t change a system that needed to be changed for hundreds of years in one year.”

Suspensions:

Suspensions can last from one to 20 days. A written notice is issued. Within 10 days of the staring date, the student, parent or guardian can ask for an appeal. Appeals must be held within 15 days of receiving the notice, unless the parent/guardian and school board agree to an extension. The student and principal can have their say before a committee of at least three school board trustees. The student can’t appeal if the principal is conducting an expulsion investigation. This can only be done after the principal makes a recommendation on whether or not to expel.

Reasons for suspension:

• uttering a threat to inflict serious bodily harm on another person

• possessing alcohol or illegal drugs

• being under the influence of alcohol

• swearing at a teacher or at any person in a position of authority

• committing an act of vandalism that causes extensive damage to school property at the student’s school or to property on school premises

• bullying, including cyberbullying

• any other activities identified in school board policy

Expulsions:

If the principal recommends expelling a student, the student and principal will both get their say in a hearing before at least three school board trustees. The hearing must be held within a least 20 days of the suspension. An expulsion can be appealed to the Child and Family Services Review Board within 30 days of the expulsion notice.

Reasons for expulsion:

• possessing a weapon, including a firearm

• using a weapon to cause of threaten bodily harm to another person

• committing physical assault on another person that causes bodily harm requiring treatment by a medical practitioner

• committing sexual assault

• trafficking in weapons or illegal drugs

• committing robbery

• giving alcohol to a minor

• bullying — if the student has previously been suspended for bullying and the student’s presence in the school creates an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person

• any activity for which a student can be suspended that is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate

• any other activities identified on school board policy

Source: Legal Aid Ontario

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Canada

Somali youth project update (Project TooSoo)

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CBC —  For the past year, a group of young Somalis in Toronto has been learning how to re-claim the stories told about their community.

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Arts & Culture

Kenyan-Somali, black, Muslim and Canadian: new doc explores Canada’s hyphenated identities

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Short documentary ‘Hyphen-Nation’ by 22-year-old Torontonian puts five black women in conversation

A new documentary by a 22-year-old Toronto filmmaker is analyzing what is means to be an immigrant in Canada.

Directed and produced by Samah Ali, Hyphen-Nation features a 14-minute conversation between five women of colour that is inspired by her own cultural experience.

The women discuss how their cultural heritage influences their identities as Canadians and immigrants.

“The whole conversation is what’s your hyphen?” explained Ali, calling her debut film a “nuanced” discussion about what black Canadian identities look like.

“And that’s what opens it up to so many people to identify with because whether it’s themselves or their family members who have an immigration story, everybody typically has a hyphen.”

The women are asked if they identify with being black Canadians.

Ali explains this is both liberating and tragic. She identifies as a Kenyan-Somali woman, along with a Muslim woman and a black woman.

“I don’t know if I identify strongly as a Canadian, but definitely when I leave Canada I identify as a Canadian,” she said despite being born and raised in Toronto.

“The other parts of my identity, the ones that are more visible, the ones that I practice everyday are definitely the ones that are on the forefront of my mind. Compared to my Canadianness, it’s something that I’m not really aware of until I have my passport and I’m travelling to other countries.”
Sojin Chun, programmer for Regent Park Film Festival, says the short documentary captures the theme of the festival.

“We really want to show different narratives that you wouldn’t normally see through other means, through the mainstream media,” she said.

The three day event is free and showcases the work of women of colour which reflects Toronto’s east end neighbourhood.

“We really make sure we represent all the cultures that are present in Regent Park,” said Chun.

Ali explains this is why she wanted Hyphen-Nation to premiere at the film festival.

“I want this film to foster a greater community, not only in Canada, but also worldwide.”

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Canada

Somali-Canadian Community Discusses Causes Behind Rise in Youth Gang Activity

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The Somali community that settled in Canada says poverty and a lack of access to jobs and academic opportunities are some of the factors behind deadly gang violence that has taken a toll on its youth.

More than two dozen young Somali men have died in Alberta because of such violence in the past decade, with gang activity spreading to Toronto as well, officials say.

The Somali-Canadian population discussed the issue of gang-related deaths recently at a town hall forum hosted in Toronto by VOA’s Somali Service. In attendance at the town hall were an Islamic preacher, a woman who lost a son to violence, and two people representing youth and parents in the community. More than 200 people attended, including parents, relatives and friends of the victims of gang violence.

In 1991, a large number of Somalis fleeing war in their east African country settled in a group of residential towers in northwest Toronto.

Cultural challenges

The community has struggled to integrate into Canadian life, but several speakers said the largest impediments are cultural challenges, as well as poverty and a lack of opportunities for Somali youth, panel members said.

Habiba Aden, a cofounder of a Somali group called Positive Change, lost her 26-year-old son Warsame Ali in a double homicide in September 2012 in Toronto. She said she believes cultural challenges and a loss of identity are major issues driving young Somalis toward gang activity.

“Our sons lack paternal role model, and they do not speak their mother language, which forces them struggle with identity crisis,” Aden said.

In Canada, “mothers take the leading role of the family while still struggling with raising more than half a dozen kids. They do not get the same help and cultural co-parenting they would get back home from other family members,” Aden said.

She said she believes those challenges lead families to be less physically affectionate with one another, and eventually drive their sons to outside influences.

Sidiq Ali Hashi, the youth representative on the panel said Somali youth are affected by the socioeconomic status of the community coupled with the influence of the poor neighborhoods they live in.

“I think the reason is the environment where the Somali child is being raised. He grows up in the worst poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Toronto,” Hashi said. He said the neighborhoods where Somali youth live lack investments and good schools.

Because of these challenges, some students drop out of school and fall in with drug dealers and gangs, Hashi said.

Canada, parents blamed

Panelist Sheikh Saeed Rageah, a religious scholar and Imam, said the education system in Canada has failed Somali youth, calling the schools “systematic racism.”

“The education system in this country was designed to segregate us. When the Somali-Muslim child joins the school, he or she is labeled as a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), which deprives them their rights for a fair teaching and homework support,” Rageah said.

However, Saeed Mohamed Mohamud, a parent representative on the panel, said blame belonged not with Canada’s education system but with parents.

“Whatever it is, I think the system in this country was not designed for Somalis. It has been the same since we came here. But I would put the primary blame on a bad parenting of many members within the community,” Mohamud said. “I am a parent. I always see young boys who went to school in the morning, and when they come out hanging out the streets of Toronto with their backpacks. Where are the parents of these boys?”

Some family members had questions for Toronto police, saying many of the homicide cases of slain Somalis remain unsolved.

Toronto police officials said about 40 percent of gang shootings in the city occur in the Toronto neighborhood where Somalis reside.

“We have issues with regards to gang members, drug trade, poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of recreational facilities, inadequate … housing. We have issues with families themselves and the culture that is brought into the community,” Toronto police Superintendent Mario Di Tommaso told VOA.

Di Tommaso said the gangs in Toronto, including those within the Somali community, are based on race, gender and ethnicity.

Community involvement

He said the Toronto police have spent resources to investigate the gang-related shootings and homicides, but he said some blame lies within the community and its lack of reporting such activity.

“We will have many situations where the community at large, not necessarily the Somali community, will make observations, will witnesses something, and they are reluctant to call the police,” Di Tommaso said. “When that happens, you have a proliferation of crimes within that community, which breeds fear.

“We need more witnesses from the community so that we can advance to our investigations,” he added.

At least one parent, Mohamud agreed to a point. He said the community was not happy with how the police and law enforcement agencies handled cases involving the Somali youth, saying, “We have a right that government investigates and tells us who killed our kids, but we also need to collaborate with the law enforcement agencies as well.”

Abdirahman Yabarow, chief of VOA’s Somali Service, said the forum was designed to give the Somali-Canadian community a chance to explore, brainstorm and find solutions behind the violence that is affecting their youth.

At the conclusion of the two-hour discussion, panelists proposed an organization aimed at gathering and making available resources for the community. They also urged those in the audience to unite against the influences that are pushing the Somali youth to drug- and gang-related crimes.

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