School board should do more to prevent, address anti-Black racism: parents

Caution: This story contains details of racism that readers may find upsetting.

ROCKWOOD – Black parents say the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) should do more to stop anti-Black racism.

Black children are treated differently, called the N-word, and told their skin is like feces and their hair like tentacles, according to four parents who spoke with the Advertiser. 

The UGDSB is creating a human rights policy, but Black parents, including Rockwood residents Nia James and Nyesha Ward, say it’s not enough, and their children are not safe at their schools.  

The board should develop a strategic anti-Black racism plan with a transparent process for protecting Black students’ safety and responding to racist incidents, James and Ward say. 

They want that process to include informing the victim’s family and supporting the victim.

UGDSB human rights, equity and accessibility commissioner Alicia Ralph said this is already happening, but some parents say that hasn’t been the case for their children. 

“We have to beg and ask for support over and over,” Ward said.

James said she feels a third-party “fulsome investigation into anti-Black racism,” as has been done at the York Region and Halton Catholic District School Boards, is needed at the UGDSB. 

“This would … hold the board  accountable for actually doing the work to dismantle anti-Black racism, rather than just stating their commitment to it,” she said. 

Neither parent blames teachers or principals – they say the problem is the system “and the people protecting it.”

Director of education Peter Sovran declined interview requests from the Advertiser, but shared a statement. 

Board’s efforts

Sovran stated the board is committed to “actively combatting all forms of hate and discrimination. 

“Any form of identity-based harm is unacceptable.

“When allegations of anti-Black racism are brought forward within our board, they are immediately escalated and investigated.” 

James has made many requests to speak directly with Sovran, but has been ignored, she said. 

Sovran lists “significant steps” the board has recently taken, including conducting its first student census, launching a “No Excuse for Abuse” campaign, hiring Ralph, and planning to create a human rights policy and procedure (approved on June 25). 

Ralph said the policy will increase “compliance and accountability” and ensure administration and teachers are responsive when discrimination occurs, and proactive in preventing it. 


James and Ward have invested significant time and energy into advocating for their daughters and nieces and educating UGDSB administration – including almost two dozen meetings and about 85 pages of emails to senior staff and trustees (which have been reviewed by the Advertiser).

These emails and meetings are upsetting and anxiety inducing, the sisters say. 

The board repeatedly uses her family’s trauma as a learning tool, “costing the board nothing except our time, our dignity and our exhaustive efforts,” James said. 

In response, she says the board offers a “pattern of non-response, deflection and avoidance,” causing further harm to her family. 

James is a teacher with the Halton Catholic District School Board so she’s familiar with the school board system.

But when communicating with UGDSB administration, James often resorts to using her white husband’s email address in order to be taken more seriously.

Parents of Black Children, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for Black students facing racism at school, has helped James navigate the aftermath of multiple racist incidents at Rockwood Centennial Public School. 

James wishes the school contacted her about the incidents, but she learned of them from her daughters, one of whom called her “mortified, crying, sobbing,” after one of the incidents.

James said the school never adequately addressed the incidents, which caused her daughter to miss three weeks of school. 

Parents of Black Children spokesperson Xavier Mclaughlin says all Ontario school boards should implement “a uniformed approach to dealing with issues of anti-Black racism.

“School boards have the opportunity to really tackle anti-Black racism and support Black families,” he said. 

The group has worked with the UGDSB on multiple issues, and Mclaughlin said “while they do have a good amount of issues, they’re one of the school boards that are very willing to meet and attentive to issues that we bring to them.” 

Leaving the board

Two parents spoke with the Advertiser on the condition of anonymity, because they’re concerned their children will face backlash if they speak publicly.  

Ralph said when racist incidents occur, the response should include appropriate “discipline, education and awareness,” as well as a restorative response that focuses on the victim, “to ensure the individual impacted feels safe.”   

But the mother of a 13-year-old who was called the N-word in a Wellington County UGDSB school last year said this was not the case for her son. 

She said the board’s inadequate responses to frequent racist incidents eventually led her to pull her son from the board. 

She said no one spoke with her son about the N-word incident, they only spoke with the girl who said it.

She expected the girl to be suspended, but school officials “basically said, ‘Oh well, she’s new to the school, she came from a different country, so she didn’t really understand.’

“That’s absolutely unacceptable,” the boy’s mother said.

“The N-word is a universal word. Everyone knows the meaning and the harm that it causes.” 

The recurring racism and lack of support eventually led her to enroll him in a different school, out of town, with a different board.

“Things were happening constantly,” she said. “I don’t think [the UGDSB] puts enough emphasis on how Black people are treated.”

James and Ward agree, and feel Black children should know the board has their back and supports them. 

Mclaughlin said that’s why apologies and remedies after racist incidents should happen publicly. 

Many children witness racist incidents, but not how adults label or address it, he said, leaving them to process it themselves.

Anti-Black racism at school can have devastating consequences, Mclauglin said, including young kids trying to scratch away their skin colour, elementary students considering suicide and middle and high school students trying to take their own lives. 

Training, resources

Mclaughlin said part of the problem is inadequate training. 

“People are uncomfortable with things they do not know, things they haven’t been properly trained on, so they try to avoid them,” instead of addressing issues. 

The anonymous mom also calls for more training, and for the board to “bring people in from the Black community to educate them,” while recognizing that “not all Black families are monolithic – we are all going to have different ideas of the way that things should be done.” 

Ward agrees: the board should provide teachers and administration with “adequate resources, support and training to manage these situations.” 

As it is, “so many people are being failed, at so many different levels,” she said. 

Ralph said UGDSB staff have “historically” received mandatory training around anti-Black racism, and that staff have ongoing opportunities to participate in additional training.

Identify, dismantle

James says it’s “imperative that anti-Black racism is handled as a distinct issue,” with a separate framework than other forms of discrimination. 

And she wants the UGDSB to broaden their ability to identify anti-Black racism, noting it goes beyond the N-word. 

Ralph said board officials discuss different forms of anti-Black racism in their day-to-day work, including “analyzing data to describe how it manifests.” 

The human rights policy, Ralph said, will support “dismantling anti-Black racism specifically, as it will provide some of the tools to build that culture of human rights that includes anti-Black racism.”


Parents also feel the board should hire more Black teachers and staff, including a Black social worker.

Ward’s Grade 4 daughter at Harris Mill Public School, was told she “looked like poo” on two different occasions. 

The first time, Ward said she got a call as soon as the school day finished, and then-principal Shashana Hare, a Black woman, didn’t downplay the severity of the issue. 

Hare sat down with Ward’s daughter and said “I know how this feels,” Ward said. 

This validation increased her  ability to cope and recover from the incident, and Ward wishes it was the norm.

But the second time, Hare no longer worked at the school, and there was no call or email after the incident – Ward found out from her daughter. 

Ward asked for support for her daughter, and the board recommended counselors who were not Black or qualified to respond to anti-Black racism, as well as community groups with which James had negative experiences. 

These incidents can have a prolonged impact – a year after one, Ward said her daughter sat down on the kitchen floor and cried. When Ward asked what was wrong, she said school has not felt the same since it happened.

Time for change

Ward said school board officials are good at “talking the talk,” but she’s ready to see them start “walking the walk” and putting their words into action. 

“Children are getting hurt,” she said. “At what point do we stop blaming the red tape” and start making real change?

“We’ve waited long enough for the board to do anything internally which clearly isn’t going to happen,” James said. 

“Black people can’t wait another 250 years.”

So James and Ward are “making noise” with hopes that shining a spotlight on anti-Black racism at UGDSB schools will  push the board towards change.