On Feb. 6, an activist group called HWDSB Kids Need Help facilitated a meeting at Sir John A.MacDonald Secondary School. This offered community members an opportunity to discuss their experiences of discriminatory treatment by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and its constituent schools and staff.

The group came together after an incident at a Hamilton high school that involved police and a child with autism. The incident raised questions about de-escalation strategies, the roles and training of teachers as both educators and caregivers and direct and systemic discrimination in schools.

“We want to… make it as accessible as possible for everyone to speak about what has happened [to them].… We want to provide that route to the board,” said Gachi Issa, one of the event organizers.

Participants were asked to share their stories and recommendations for improvement, which the group is compiling into a report and will share with the HWDSB in the coming weeks. The report will also be released on their Facebook page.

The organizers, Issa and Sabreina Dahab, now students at McMaster, also faced systemic barriers in accessing educational supports.

“There is a community, but a lot of us have been working on our own instances of discrimination and working against it on our own,” said Issa. “We’ve seen change happen in our school, although it was cultural… [which] doesn’t necessarily transfer to structural [change].”

This is central to the group’s mission to demand structural change from the HWDSB. But the need for this kind of change stretches beyond Hamilton.

An investigation carried out by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that sections of the Ontario Safe Schools Act, passed in 2000 by the Conservative government, failed to protect students’ human rights, including the right not to be discriminated against based on race or ability.

The act set down new rules for suspension and expulsion, namely that suspensions and expulsions for certain behaviour became mandatory rather than discretionary, in addition to other zero-tolerance mandates.

The OHRC’s study found that the act has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities and students with disabilities. Upon interviewing a large sample of school administrators, social workers, parents, students and lawyers, they concluded that the act allows for both direct and systemic discrimination.

For example, the act does not prohibit suspension or expulsion on grounds that are a result of a student’s disability, despite the OHRC requiring that a student with a disability is accommodated to the point of undue hardship. Likewise, students of colour tend to be placed in special needs classrooms more often than white students.

“[Teachers and administrators] aren’t being held accountable, which enables [them] to continue these actions and not be trained,” said Dahab. Training is one issue that Dahab and

Issa will address with the board. Julie Johnson, a parent of a child with autism and an advocate for students with autism who attended the HWDSB Kids Need Help meeting, had to leave her job because her son could not stay in school. She identifies a shift in teaching conventions as a setback for fair teaching practices.

“I think that’s the bigger thing — actually caring about human beings and building them. So, it isn’t always about marks. Sometimes it’s about, ‘This kid’s really struggling. He’s got some real issues at home’… you just have to hope you have a decent human being looking after your kid,” Johnson said.

As HWDSB Kids Need Help and families such as the Johnsons continue to organize, the community will strive to better support marginalized students in Hamilton and reduce barriers to education.

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