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How a Black Student Paid the Price for Racism at a Vancouver School

Elise’s classmate made a violent, racist video. The fallout drove her away for good.

Katie Hyslop 11 Sep 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Elise’s friends in Grade 10 at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School were the first to show her the hate video a classmate had made and shared on social media.

It was violent, obscene and racist. The student spoke of his desire to kill Black people.

Elise (not her real name) immediately reported it to vice-principal Mike Vulgaris, who told her the student would face consequences, she said.

“That goes against what the Constitution stands for,” she recalls Vulgaris saying.

Elise believed him. But she still rode the bus home in tears.

That was Nov. 19, 2018. Ten months later, as a new school year begins, Elise is the one who has faced consequences, including harassment and racist bullying by other students. (The reason why we have not used her real name.)

She missed weeks of classes due to fear and stress, and in February she transferred to a different school, abandoning friends and her school community. She had worked hard to get into a specialty program at Lord Byng; that was left behind as well.

The case raises important questions about the response to racism by the school, the Vancouver School Board and police. All failed to take action to ensure the safety of her and other Black students, say Elise and her mother.

They went to the school the day after Elise saw the video shared on Snapchat and Facebook.

They say they set out their concerns in a meeting with principal Geoff Taylor, Vulgaris, and the school police liaison officer. Especially about the student who had stated his desire to kill Black people.

“I said, I don’t feel safe being in the hallways with him,” Elise recalls. “They said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to deal with it.’”

The video was taken down, but The Tyee has seen it. It has also been reported elsewhere, and Vancouver School Board Chair Janet Fraser acknowledged it was “unacceptable and very disturbing.”

The short video made the rounds on social media. The camera is zoomed in on the student’s face as he utters racist slurs and obscenities and says he wants to kill Black people: “I just want to line them all up and just chuck an explosive in there and go ‘kaboom.’”

Elise said the threat to her life was clear.

“When you’re confident enough to make a video about it, post it, send it around saying you want to threaten people’s lives, and say your full name at the beginning of the video, that’s a whole other case of racism to me,” said Elise, now 16. “That is totally wrong.”

At the time, Elise estimates there were six Black students at Lord Byng out of about 1,300 total. (The district could not confirm this; only Indigenous students are given the option to self-declare their ethnicity in the district.)

Elise and her mother said those students were clearly the target of the video.

But school administrators and the Vancouver Police Department weren’t convinced any students were in danger, because the student referred to Black people in general.

“We’ve been told that it’s not supposed to be bothering us because it’s not really directed to her,” Elise’s mother said. “Who are the Black people that he talked about? How are you going to tell us that is not including us?”

The district said it sent emails to parents and guardians the day the video was discovered and again a week later, detailing how school officials were responding to the incident.

The Tyee asked for copies, and in return the district shared letters dated Dec. 17, 2018, and April 30, 2019 — one and five months after Elise told the vice-principal about the video, respectively. But the district did not share the initial emails allegedly sent to parents and guardians about the incident.

Elise’s mother said she didn’t receive the first email from the district, but she did receive the second one a week later updating parents on how the district responded to the incident. No one from the school contacted her or the parents of other Black students directly to tell them what had happened, she said.

The Vancouver School District would not speak about how either Elise or the student who made the video were treated, citing student privacy.

Selma Smith, a district principal in the learning services department, said the district immediately notified the Education Ministry and the Vancouver Police Department, which did a violent threat risk assessment that day that found no threat to student, faculty or staff safety.

“It’s unfortunate that racism is prevalent in our society,” Smith said. “And we understand for sure that there’s a need to address that so that all of our schools can feel safe and welcoming and caring. And we want to support our families as much as we support our students.”

But Elise’s mother said the district’s actions — and inaction — undermine its claimed commitment to “safe and welcoming and caring” schools.

“They don’t call me, my daughter came home crying on the bus, no one actually protecting her, or no one talking to her,” she said of the day Elise reported the video.

If the situation was reversed and Elise had made a hate video, the school administration and police “would be handling it differently,” her mother said.

After the video

The same day Elise told vice-principal Vulgaris about the video, a meme was shared on Lord Byng students’ Instagram accounts. It showed a photo of Elise talking to Vulgaris and the acronym “R.I.P.,” followed by the name of the student who made the video.

Elise’s mother heard about the post.

“Then I’m like OK, that’s it. They didn’t call me, they didn’t bother to call me to tell me what happened, or [say] I can go pick her up or can discuss it. And now they’re still posting pictures online... I’m like, ‘OK, this is out of control,’” she said.

“We went to the police.”

Elise and her mom went to the Vancouver Police Department headquarters after school to report the video and the Instagram post. But her mother said the officer they spoke to was not helpful.

“He was like, ‘I don’t know how to deal with that. And don’t get your hopes up. Nothing can happen,’” she said, adding they were told to contact Instagram to get the meme about Elise and the vice-principal taken down.

“I told him it’s not because you cannot deal, you don’t know what to do because you feel uncomfortable,” said Elise’s mother.

VPD media spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard told The Tyee there were no arrests or criminal charges in the case because the Criminal Code requires proof of intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and the student — who Robillard referred to as a “troubled youth” — did not specifically name any person or location in the video.

Robillard denied any bias or inaction. “That is certainly not the case.... If she feels that way, she can bring that up to us, she can bring that up to the school.”

At the meeting with principal Taylor, vice-principal Vulgaris and the school’s VPD liaison officer, Elise’s mother said she told the administrators she wanted the school to publicly acknowledge the video as a hate crime; expel the offending student, while requiring him to attend counselling; and hold an assembly for the whole school community — parents and guardians included — to send the message that such behaviour is unacceptable.

“To let them know there is something been made, and we don’t want this ever to happen again. And we do not tolerate this, and saying, ‘Hey, you need to educate your kids,’” she said.

“They told us no,” she said. The administration seemed more concerned about the student who made the video than Black students at Lord Byng, she added.

They told her, she said, “He’s just a kid, he’s actually sorry.”

The Tyee contacted both Taylor and Vulgaris for an interview to respond to Elise and her mother’s story. The school district then contacted The Tyee to say it would be responding on behalf of the administrators.

District principal Smith said the school’s early actions included a student forum on Dec. 5 and a mandatory assembly on Dec. 10.

“A student forum was immediately planned to provide an opportunity for students to voice concerns or needs, and student assemblies were also arranged immediately after that, to provide some education and information to all the students in the school,” she said.

“We’re just wanting to make sure that the school was being fostered through a safe and caring school lens and wanting to ensure that all students who needed support knew where to go get support, to counsellors, for example, or teachers.”

Elise attended the student forum, which she and some Grade 12 students had requested. It was “disorganized,” not advertised, and only attended by about 50 students, she said. The whole school should have been made aware of the video and racism and its consequences, Elise and her mother said, and that didn’t happen.

“Our student forum did not go well at all,” Elise said.

Some students questioned the administrators about how they handled the video, but the impact was limited, Elise said.

“We wanted it in a way that everyone could be involved, because not every student could make it to the actual student forum,” she said. The students who wanted the forum had envisioned all students having the opportunity to submit questions and receive answers, even if they couldn’t attend in person, she said.

851px version of LordByngHighSchoolFacade.jpg
Lord Byng Secondary School is located on the west side of Vancouver, BC. Photo by Arnold K, Wikipedia.

‘No one talks about it’

This wasn’t Elise’s first experience with racism at Lord Byng.

Two years ago, when Elise was in Grade 8, her friends decorated her locker for her birthday before class. But when Elise returned to her locker at break, someone had used a marker to deface her locker with the n-word, she said.

Her mother said the school didn’t contact her then, either. She reached out to the school counsellor after hearing the story from Elise, she said.

Two years ago, a few students dressed in Ku Klux Klan uniforms for Halloween, Elise said. Elise’s mom heard a rumour that the students were suspended. School administrators would not comment.

“No one talks about it,” Elise said. She and other students pushed the school for an assembly about racism after the incident, she said. It didn’t happen.

The assembly could have made a difference for the classmate who posted the hate video, she said. “This might have been prevented if they got taught about racism.”

Vancouver school trustee Jennifer Reddy said she was aware of the KKK incident, as well as other instances of racism in schools across Vancouver, particularly for Indigenous students.

She said she’s also heard from school staff members who want the board to do more to combat racism.

“Staff, who have maybe also seen that video or been subjected to other forms of violence or hate in our community, whether it’s coming from the school or not, are reaching out to say, ‘Hey, is there anything that you can do at the school board level?’”

“The main thing I can do as a trustee when I hear about things like that is believe students,” she said. “Like when students say, ‘I’m not safe,’ or ‘this happened at my school.’”

Reddy said she didn’t hear about the Lord Byng video until a community activist messaged her three weeks after Elise initially reported it to the vice-principal.

She took immediate action because of the confluence of racist incidents she was hearing about in the district, she said. Reddy sent the video to district staff.

But a critical position — the district’s anti-racism mentor — had been eliminated to balance the district’s budget in 2016 after the BC Liberal government fired the school board and appointed Dianne Turner as trustee.

Reddy also tried locating the district’s anti-racism policy. But to her surprise, there was no stand-alone anti-racism policy. Turner had combined several policies — including the anti-racism policy — under the heading of “administrative procedures."

That meant the board was less likely to be involved when racism was reported because the incidents were considered “simply administrative procedural tasks,” Reddy said.

The original anti-racism policy was much more robust, Reddy said. “That policy gave us specific language around what the district deems as acceptable and unacceptable. And what we do in terms of curricular, instructional, program support, resources, go-to preventative and reactive measures.”

Reddy responded to the Lord Byng racist incidents by proposing a motion at the Dec. 17 board meeting, one month after Elise saw the racist video.

The motion, unanimously passed after an amendment, re-affirmed the board’s anti-racism stance. And it identified the incident as a hate crime, although charges were never laid.

“That in light of the recent anti-Black racist hate crime at one of our secondary schools, the Vancouver board of education publicly acknowledge the incident that occurred and affirm our ongoing commitment to anti-racism in the district — in particular, to the maintenance and continued development of safe and inclusive spaces for all students that are free from all types of bullying and discrimination,” it read.

The aftermath for the system

People concerned about the video and the overall impact of racism attended the board meeting. Concerns had already been pouring into the district and the school from current and former Lord Byng students, their families and the broader Black community in Vancouver.

Following the meeting, the district arranged for one-on-one meetings between concerned parents and district administrators. The board and committees also heard presentations from individuals and organizations like the City of Vancouver and Equitas, a national human rights organization, about racism and equality.

Parker Johnson, a parent of a Black student at another high school, attended one of the one-on-one meetings to express his concerns over the video and how it was handled.

“They did seem interested in hearing my concerns, and open and curious,” Johnson said of his meeting with a district administrator.

“And I know that they’re still in process around some of the work; they did recently share a report on all the things that they’ve accomplished, which was certainly a nice report. For me, it would have been better to get a bit more detail on who utilized resources, how the resources impacted the work that they do? What are our evaluation mechanisms?”

In March, the district voted to reinstate a full-time anti-racism mentor position starting this month. Johnson said the position should never have been cut.

“Because racism is not done, colonization is not done. We need to continue to decolonize,” he said, adding usage of the n-word is not uncommon in Vancouver schools, though not always meant hatefully. Young people — and many adults — who pick up the word from Black artists who have reclaimed it for themselves don’t understand how problematic and racist the word is, he said.

“We need to be vigilant because in a white supremacist society, which is the society we live in, that’s more the norm than not, the acceptance of racial denigration,” Johnson said.

The aftermath for Elise

Around the time when the school district was crafting the statement, Elise and her mother were reaching the end of their rope.

Since their initial meeting in November, Elise had been repeatedly pulled out of class to attend meetings with administrators about the video, particularly in the first two weeks after it had been discovered. Some meetings were to talk about how she was doing. Others were for things like advising the principal on the wording of his PA announcement about the video.

The meetings were much less frequent after the second week, but Elise said they continued until the winter break in December.

“She’s a kid that is hurt,” her mother said, but the administration “looked at her like she is an adult.”

Despite all the meetings, Elise felt the school never accepted her view that the video threatened the safety of Black students.

“I felt like I was going to school every day getting ready to fight, to fight for what we believed in,” Elise said. Her marks suffered and she lost sleep. Her mother recalls Elise crying almost every morning before going to school.

The Dec. 10 assembly included a presentation by a representative from Black Lives Matter Vancouver. But neither Elise nor her mother was impressed.

“The whole focus was activism,” Elise said. “Activism is already happening. People are angry; people are upset. We’re trying to get something to change. And you’re just telling us what we already know.... You’re not talking about the real issue, and the real issue is racism.”

Inviting Black Lives Matter Vancouver to lead the assembly was a copout, Elise’s mother said, letting the administration shirk its responsibility to address racism at the school.

Elise’s mother said that vice-principal Vulgaris called her in mid-December to set up a meeting to apologize for how they had treated her and her daughter.

But during the phone call, she said, Vulgaris dropped another bombshell. Two weeks earlier the administration had discovered a Facebook group created by students about Elise where they called her the n-word. It was not clear whether the students attended Lord Byng or another Vancouver secondary school.

Again, Elise’s mother was upset that no one had contacted her earlier.

“You cannot apologize to me, and I don’t know [what you have done] about the situation,” Elise’s mom recalled telling Vulgaris.

“And I just say that, ‘Right now I’m just trying to deal with my daughter because she feels like she’s going to the war when she’s going to school, instead of going to school. She’s only 15, fighting with a grown-up man that doesn’t understand her.’”

Elise’s mother said Vulgaris said he would let her know how they handled the Facebook group. But that was the last time she spoke with anyone from the school administration and she still doesn’t know how it was dealt with, she said.

On Dec. 22, Elise’s mom got a call from a member of the district’s diversity advisory committee informing her that the student who made the video would not be returning to Lord Byng in that school year.

Elise, stressed over the fallout from reporting the video, missed several weeks of classes at Lord Byng between December and February. A counsellor left a voicemail, her mother said, but no one from the administration called to ask why her daughter was missing classes.

Johnson isn’t surprised that Elise ended up leaving Lord Byng. He said the district should be reporting on the use and usefulness of new anti-racism resources, hiring more Black teachers and administrators and pushing for curriculum changes to acknowledge the real histories of racialized people in Canada — including the ownership and abuse of Black and Indigenous people.

“When you start peeling below the surface around what inclusion looks like, who’s in Parliament? Who’s overrepresented in prisons? Who’s overrepresented in poverty?” Johnson asked. “When you look at all of your social indicator through the lens of those racial observations, what do you see?”

Smith, the district principal, said the district’s diversity committee is working on improved resources for youth experiencing racism or any other kind of discrimination and bias at school.

“It’s in draft, but we’re certainly working with our stakeholders on the committee, too, and we have a youth voice on the committee as well and a parent representative to really make it as inclusive and helpful,” said Smith.

At the end of June, the school board passed another anti-racism motion after The Tyee reported on the controversy over the Cecil Rhodes plaque at L’École Bilingue Elementary. Rhodes is also widely recognized as the founder of the now defunct country of Rhodesia and the father of apartheid in South Africa.

In addition to removing the plaque, the motion called on the board to create its own reconciliation plan with Black, Indigenous and people of colour in Vancouver.

However, in the long term education will ultimately turn the tide on racism in Vancouver schools, said Smith.

“I think education is the most powerful thing we have to help people understand, promote mutual respect, and through education, giving people the tools about how to respond and how to, hopefully, just eliminate any kind of discriminatory behaviour,” she said.

Elise, going into Grade 11 next month, is trying to move on from what happened at Lord Byng. The lesson she took away from her attempts to seek justice and safety for Black students isn’t likely the one the district wanted to impart.

“The main thing that hurts the most is the reactions to it, telling us we’re overreacting, not taking us seriously,” she said. She needed to leave the school, but it feels like she was the one who lost the struggle.

“I feel like they got a sense of relief. And that’s what I hate about not being there... because I feel like I let them win.”

The Tyee asked the school district whether the student who made the video would be returning to Lord Byng this September, but the district declined to respond for privacy reasons.

But the possibility of the student returning led another Black student to leave the school this semester, that student’s mother confirmed to The Tyee.

On Sept. 2, the BC Community Alliance, a group of concerned Lord Byng parents and members of Vancouver’s Black community published an open letter to the district, Education Ministry, City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department addressing what it sees as an underwhelming response to the video and poor treatment of Elise and her mother by the school and district.

The letter also alleged the Vancouver Police Department had initially laid charges against the student but later dropped them. In a separate press release the alliance mentioned its online petition calling on the district to do better that, as of Sept. 2, had close to 700 signatures.

In an email to The Tyee, a VPD spokesperson refused to confirm or deny whether charges against the student had ever been laid.

“Vancouver Police are aware of the concerns raised in the letter,” wrote Sgt. Aaron Roed. “We have reviewed the VPD investigation and are confident that the appropriate conclusion was achieved.”

The BC Community Alliance held a press conference outside Lord Byng on Sept. 3 with parents and members of the community speaking out against the district’s handling of the incident.

One of those parents was Bruce Wiesner, associate dean of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. His white teenage son currently attends Lord Byng and his daughter, who is Black, is planning to follow her brother’s path to Byng in a few years.

“When people refer to this incident as ‘disappointing,’ as ‘unfortunate,’ that to me clearly shows that people don’t get it. It’s just so far past ‘disappointing:’ it’s disgusting,” Wiesner said.

“Ultimately, to me, it comes down to if we’re losing people from the community who don’t feel safe and don’t feel welcome, then the only restorative action is if that is truly dealt with to the extent that they are comfortable to come back. And I hope that happens.”  [Tyee]

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