Three ways to ensure the safety of Black youth in schools

What does educational success and inclusion look like for Black youth? This question shaped a recent panel discussion convened by United Way’s Black Community Advisory Council (BCAC), which mobilizes community members around pressing issues affecting Peel’s Black community. The council invited thought leaders from across the Black community to weigh in on the best ways to help young people feel supported and safe at school—and beyond.

1. Engage youth

There is strong evidence that points to the urgency of engaging community leaders—including Black youth—in a dialogue as well as systemic change. According to Wayne Brunton, superintendent of education at the Dufferin Peel District Catholic School Board, many school administrators don’t always understand what Black students are going through. “There is a lack of understanding around the specific experiences of Black students, they are being treated like they are troublemakers,” he notes. A United Way-supported research report—The Black Community in Peel—echoes similar findings. It notes that Black youth felt unwanted, devalued and socially isolated in Peel Region. It mentioned factors such as teachers’ low expectations of Black students, relatively few Black teachers in schools and the relative absence of Blacks and Black culture in the curriculum as contributors to Black youth’s feelings of exclusion. “We need young students to continuously give feedback,” says Melissa Wilson, Vice President of Mayfield Secondary School. She adds, “parents and youth are our strongest stakeholders. If you feel like your assignments are too Eurocentric, voice that. Speak up about anti-Black racism. Advocate for yourself. This is not a privilege. It’s your human right.”

2. Examine what safety looks like

Wilson urges that we re-examine what we mean by safety. “When we think about safety, we need to ensure the psychological safety of Black students. We need to understand why Black students feel like they need to code switch (the modifying of one’s speech, behavior, appearance, etc. to adapt to different sociocultural norms) for the risk of being labeled as having behavioural problems.” Brunton stressed the need to listen to Black youth in order to understand what safety looks like to them in order to implement system level changes. “Safety is our priority but if we are not listening to Black youth, how will we understand the barriers to education?”

3. Reinforce education as a right, not a privilege

The school boards in Peel Region aren’t alone. It’s an issue across the GTA. In fact, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reports that there was variation in high school graduation rates among racialized groups in 2016. For example, students in the Grade 9 cohort who identified themselves as Black had lower high school graduation rates (77%) than students who identified as East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian (96%, 92% and 90 respectively). The numbers point to a trend of Black youth being left behind in the education system.

Marc Andrews, honorary chair of BCAC, is deputy chief of the Peel Regional Police and the first Black senior officer in the history of the force. “Education is a right, not a privilege. We need to build a community where if you make an honest effort, you would not be denied opportunity.” The panel demonstrated the need for multiple stakeholders to work together to have a wraparound effect and a desire for policies, initiatives and practices that give hope for a better community. To help Black youth succeed, United Way currently allocates $352,029 towards programs that provide leadership development activities, counselling and support to enhance the academic success of high school students. We Rise Together—initiated by United Way—is the Peel District School Board’s Action Plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black male students in schools. Members of the Black Community Advisory Council continue to advance the work of the initiative in partnership with Peel District School Board.

“We need to all work together to build a bias free and inclusive community,” said chief Andrews. “The development of safety and security of our youth should always be our community’s top priority.”

Find out what four Black changemakers in the GTA want to tell youth this Black History Month.