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LETTER: A call to action for the UGDSB in regards to events at Centre Wellington high school

In this crisis, the board has an opportunity to demonstrate visionary leadership by taking a stand against hate and violence, letter writer says

GuelphToday and EloraFergusToday recevied the following letter from Marc LaBerge on behalf of concerned parents.

This letter is a call to action for members of the Upper Grand District School Board. The events of October 7, 2021, where a trans student was [allegedly] beaten by another student at Centre Wellington District High School, have rocked our community. Some may suggest it was an isolated incident; however, it is one of many stories that are coming to light.

We are aware of numerous instances of physical violence and verbal abuse/bullying against LG2SBTQIA+ and other marginalized students over the last two months. The principal has acknowledged in the recent community forum that instances of racism and homophobia are on the rise. The police have been called to the school 14 times over the first 24 days of the school year – that is more than once every other day. These are the signs of a much deeper problem in the school’s culture that has been exacerbated by the social unraveling caused by the pandemic. They are signs of a school in crisis.

In this crisis, the board has an opportunity to demonstrate visionary leadership by taking a stand against hate and violence and supporting the CWDHS community in its efforts to create a safe, inclusive and anti-racist learning environment at our high school. Actions taken now could serve as a model for other schools in the UGDSB, across Ontario and throughout North America. This will require a sustained effort on behalf of the school and the board, in cooperation with students, teachers, parents, and community partners, and it must be adequately resourced if it is to succeed.

We would like to call on the board to take the following actions:

(1) Prioritize the completion of the investigation into the events of October 7 and release the high-level outcomes (e.g. was further corrective action taken and what was the nature of that action). This should not include the release of personal information or details from the investigation, just the same information that was released when the event occurred (i.e. the student involved was suspended during the investigation). This supports greater transparency and accountability in how these types of investigations are handled, and can be an opportunity to show that there is zero tolerance for violence, especially if it is hate-based and targeted at marginalized or racialized students.

(2) Conversations with the school and broader community to get input and ideas on how to build a safer, more-inclusive learning environment for students at CWDHS. We understand that the school is already engaged in discussions with students and are excited to hear their ideas and add our own. To harness the community’s collective energy and show students that we’re taking this seriously, there needs to be a follow-up meeting planned within the next few weeks to give parents and community members a chance to properly engage.

(3) Collect and report on data on violence, harassment, racism and bullying, and identify data gaps to support an evidence-based approach and future reporting. A starting point could be to look at the number of reported incidents of violence, racism, harassment and bullying – how many involve racialized or marginalized students, how many resulted in formal vs informal investigation, what were the outcomes. Data should be publicly available to support informed conversations.

(4) Learn from leading jurisdictions on how to support anti-racism, diversity and inclusion in our school and share findings with the community to help generate discussion.

(5) Develop an action plan to build an inclusive and anti-racist school culture at CWDHS with input from staff, students, community members and experts. It must be adequately resourced, and have a dedicated staff lead to support development and implementation. The intent should be signalled immediately, with a plan for development communicated by the end of November. A status report and summary of interim findings should be released by the beginning of second semester.

(6) Training, Tools & Resources for Teachers/Staff: Teachers and staff are on the front lines and need to be able to model inclusive and anti-racist behaviour. To do this, they need training in diversity, equity and inclusion as well as access to tools and strategies that they can use to help address instances of harassment or racism in the classroom or schoolyard in a positive and appropriate manner.

We would like to take a moment to thank the board and school staff for the actions taken to date. The enhanced staff presence in the school yard has been noticed and appreciated. Discussions with students to generate ideas on how to create a more inclusive school are an essential step in developing a “made-in-CWDHS” approach. And the meeting on October 28th was a first step in bringing the broader community together to discuss how parents and other community members can support efforts to make our school a safe, inclusive and anti-racist place to learn.

We would urge the board and the school to move swiftly to act on these and other ideas put forward by the staff and students of CWDHS. There is a desire for action and leadership from students, parents, staff and community members, and an urgency to help ensure that the school is a safe place for students to learn and express their individual identity. There are opportunities to take immediate, concrete actions while we work, as a community, to develop a thoughtful long-term approach. Delays will only signal tacit acceptance of violence and hate. We say “hate has no home here;” let’s show that we mean it.

Marc LaBerge

On behalf of concerned parents, students and friends of Centre Wellington District High School