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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

Canada’s institutions repeatedly failed former child refugee Abdoul Abdi

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The ethical case to fight the deportation of former child refugee Abdoul Abdi from Canada is a straightforward one with no visible shades of grey.

Yet it has ballooned into a needless battle exposing federal and provincial indifference to non-citizen children.

On Feb. 15, a Federal Court will hear an emergency request to temporarily stop Abdi’s deportation.

The broad strokes of Abdi’s story are these.

Instability was the only constant in the life of this man, born 24 years ago in Saudi Arabia to a Saudi father and Somali mother. He lived for four years at a refugee camp in Djibouti and then at age 6 landed in Canada along with his sister and aunts.

At age 8, child protective services scooped him and his sister out of their aunt’s home for reasons unknown. This is not surprising — research in Ontario last year showed Aboriginal and Black children are far more likely to be investigated and taken into care than white children.

The family now speculates this could be because their aunt, who didn’t speak much English, took too long to register them for school.

Abdi bounced around among not one or two or a dozen homes but 31 of them, some, he says, abusive situations. A study last year by Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth linked foster care experiences to later outcomes of homelessness and criminality, among others.
Abdi, too, got sucked into illegal activities.

When he messed up, he faced the consequences. About four years in prison for multiple offences, including aggravated assault.

He is also paying the price for errors by the system.

On Jan. 4, no alarm bells were sounded in the labyrinthine corridors of power in Canada, when Canada Border Services Agency officers arrested Abdi as he left prison after serving his sentence and was at the gates of a halfway house.

They were going to deport him, they said. Send him packing because it turned out the kid who grew up in Canada was not a Canadian citizen. His crown parents — the Department of Community Services — had never applied for a citizenship for him.

Where was he being banished? Not to Saudi, his birthplace, which might have been the logical though still unjustifiable choice, but to Somalia, the place of his mother’s ethnic origins, a place so dangerous that Canadian officials and planes don’t go there. A place whose language Abdi does not speak, and where he knows no one.

Repeatedly abandoned as a child, Abdi is now an officially unwanted adult.

It has taken a village, for us to hear of Abdi.

More accurately, it has taken a set of extraordinarily large-hearted individuals, many of whom have never met Abdi, but who are tied together by a passionate rejection of injustice to bring his story to the forefront of our nation’s conscience.

Last month, Halifax poet laureate and activist El Jones chronicled in the Halifax Examiner just one week of the collective action taken for Abdi.

In it she wove the stories of disparate lives criss-crossing through past injustices. How Jones came across Abdi via Coralee Smith, the mother of Ashley Smith who died in 2007, asphyxiated from a ligature tied around her neck as correctional officers watched.

How Abdi’s sister Fatouma courageously challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall in Nova Scotia, thereby ensuring national attention on this case.

How Jones and journalist/activist Desmond Cole questioned Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen at a National Black Summit in that city, and endured criticisms of being disruptive and rude and not supporting a fellow Black minister.

“As though,” Jones writes, “having a Black man sign the deportation papers is progress.”

She writes of Abdi’s “fantastic” lawyer Ben Perryman who finds himself suddenly under the glare of media spotlight.

And of the near-misses, the small successes, the support and amplification from Black Lives Matter and academics/activists Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi, and student activist Masuma Khan among others.

Here is an important thing:

“All of us have jobs, and school, and families,” she writes. “This isn’t even the only thing we’re advocating on this week, because there’s always more suffering, more rights being denied, more people in need.”

Yet Jones writes of hope, and of love that carries them forward.

Their undertaking serves to underline the inhumanity of the decisions that mark this case.

Federal minister of public safety Ralph Goodale refused to pause a deportation hearing while Abdi’s lawyers mount a constitutional challenge to his deportation. At its hearing on March 7, the Immigration and Refugee Board will not review the complexities of the case to decide if Abdi can enter or remain in the country, his lawyer told the CBC. His criminal record will inevitably lead to a deportation order, he said.

A deportation order would automatically strip Abdi’s permanent resident status.

No PR status means he can’t keep his job, means he risks going back to prison; being employed is a condition for his release.

And round and round it goes.

This is the face of institutions ganging up against vulnerable individuals. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an audience in Quebec it’s time to recognize anti-Black racism exists in Canada. “Canada can and must do better,” he said.

What are we waiting for?

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Ottawa police identify Northview Road homicide victim as Egal Daud

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CBC — Ottawa police have identified the man found dead inside a vehicle in Nepean Sunday as Egal Daud, 30, and say he was fatally shot.
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Daud’s body was found inside a parked car on Northview Road, near the intersection of Baseline and Merivale roads, around 10 a.m.
The Ottawa police major crime unit, which is leading the investigation, said his body may have been there since Saturday.

Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt added on Sunday police didn’t yet know if the shooting happened there, or if that’s just where the vehicle was left.

Anyone with information is asked to call the major crime unit at 613-236-1222 extension 5493 or give an anonymous tip via Crime Stoppers or the Ottawa police app.

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Canada

WATCH: Canada under fire for bid to deport Somali refugee

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Canada is facing criticism from human rights groups for its attempts to deport a 24-year-old immigrant to Somalia. Abdoul Abdi was born in Saudi Arabia and he says he has no ties to Somalia, where there have been years of violence from the armed group al-Shabab.

For now, the deportation is postponed while his lawyers ask a court to allow him to stay.

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Lak reports from Toronto.

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