Programs aimed at helping black students facing disciplinary issues can wipe slates clean

June 25, 2018
Article Source
The Globe and Mail

Ceyrina Craig didn't want to believe her son's school treated him differently because he was black, but the evidence was mounting. In Grade 1, his teacher complained about how he'd disrupt class by calling out answers. In Grade 4, after a white kid pushed him into a brick wall and he retaliated by throwing a basketball, he was sent to the office but the other student wasn't. In Grade 8, after one of his friends was swarmed and beaten by a group of kids, he rescued his friend, but was later accused by the school of being one of the aggressors.

Then, this spring, the school called Ms. Craig to tell her that her 14-year-old son had been suspended. He'd asked why gay and lesbian were bad words, and his teacher accused him of using a homophobic slur - his tone, apparently, was the issue.

By the time they finish high school, 42 per cent of all black students within the Toronto District School Board are suspended at least once, compared with 18 per cent of non-black students. Ms. Craig's son was to be part of that statistic.

But weeks later, his destiny was reversed. The boy's record was wiped clean - something he and his mother didn't know was possible when the suspension was handed down.

At the end of their pilot year, programs in Toronto and Ottawa that help black students and their parents facing disciplinary issues have assisted in more than 200 cases such as the Craigs'. With grants of $100,000 from Legal Aid Ontario, the two programs have stopped 30 expulsions, helped shorten 33 suspensions and prompted the withdrawal of 47 suspensions - including Ms. Craig's son's.

While academics, governments and school boards grapple with how to address systemic racism against black students, these programs have emerged as one practical, relatively affordable back-end way to keep black students in classrooms, helping them avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ms. Craig learned about the Toronto program - The Plug - after weeks of late-night internet research as she frantically tried to prepare for her son's disciplinary hearing. The Plug has given families free legal advice, provided them with lawyers at hearings and played an advocacy role in meetings and mediation sessions.

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