Almost a year ago, a Lord Byng Secondary student’s racist video threatening to kill Black people was shared on social media.
But it wasn’t until Monday that parents of two Black students who left the school as a result had a chance to raise their concerns with school and district officials and trustees, Vancouver police, city officials, the provincial government and the BC Human Rights Commission.
Not for lack of trying to meet earlier, said Suzanne Daley, whose child left Byng this summer after hearing that the student who made the video would return to the school this fall. The student received a three-day suspension and a month later transferred to another school after the video surfaced last November.
“I saw the video and I went nuts, started writing the school board, I started writing the school,” Daley said, adding she did receive responses from the district. “I have an eight-inch thick file.”
The meeting Monday was requested by the BC Community Alliance, an umbrella group of Black and community organizations in Vancouver. Initially slated for two hours, it lasted over three.
While the school district refused to comment on individual students, parents at the meeting said the student has not yet returned to Byng.
Both Daley and Rita Baboth, the mother of the Black Grade 10 student who reported the video last November, say the meeting went well.
But they had plenty of criticism for the way the district, police and school responded to the video.
“Grossly mishandled from the beginning,” Daley told reporters in the Vancouver School Board lobby following the meeting. “I’m ashamed at how this was handled.”
Daley said the school has offered her child the opportunity to return to Lord Byng. They won’t be accepting, she said, as long as Lord Byng principal Geoff Taylor and vice-principal Mike Vulgaris remain at the school.
Baboth said no such offer was extended to her daughter, who left Lord Byng last February because of stress from harassment and bullying after speaking out about the video.
“We feel like they treated us like we are the problem, we make them annoyed,” said Baboth. “For us to leave, they feel relieved.”
The BC Community Alliance brought a petition with over 800 signatures to the meeting that called on the district and Vancouver Police Department to do better in dealing with racism in Vancouver schools.
Marie Tate, co-founder of BC Community Alliance, said the group showed the power of collective action.
“It’s sometimes easier to push aside or brush off when there’s smaller pockets of people,” she said. “But when you come together under one umbrella and have a bigger voice, more power in numbers, then I think you’re listened to a little bit more.”
Baboth agreed. “If we didn’t turn to the Black community, none of this would have happened, because we were ignored by the system, by the school.”
District superintendent Suzanne Hoffman also spoke to media after the meeting. She would not comment on the racist video or the students involved.
The meeting was about more than just the video, she said.
“The topic of the meeting this evening was really to talk about racism, and to see how we collectively as a community could address issues of racism,” she said. Trustees at the meeting committed to ensure staff meet their obligations and work with the wider community to improve conditions for racialized people in Vancouver, she said.
Hoffman would not elaborate on commitments the district made during the meeting. But she did say the way to prevent a similar incident is through student education and listening.
“It is about finding the time and the space and the place to listen, to have those that are feeling marginalized, vulnerable or at risk to feel that they have a voice and that they are heard,” she said.
“And I think what our district will do going forward is make a commitment to ensuring that we find time to listen and engage deeply with our community.”
That’s not enough, said parents and BC Community Alliance members. They called on the district to hire more Black and female teachers and administrators and make it clear to students and families, through actions, not just words, that racism of any kind is unacceptable.
Hoffman did not refer to “restorative justice” when speaking to media, but Tate, Daley and Baboth said district representatives referred to the practice throughout the meeting.
However, the parents said no one has offered them this option.
Baboth also took issue with the district’s call for schools to do more to educate students on racism, without calling on parents to do the same.
“Why [does] always a Black person have to come up and say, ‘This is wrong,’ and ‘We are equal.’ We’re not just going to sing a song that we are equal, we need action so that we have equality here,” she said.
Baboth said her daughter still struggles at her new school. Her daughter tried counselling, her mom added, but it felt pointless when she felt nothing at the district or school level would change.
“This is going to have an impact for the rest of her life,” Baboth said.
Baboth and Daley say they don’t wish the student who made the video harm, adding it was a cry for help that went unanswered.
“What about if he is actually up to those things that he said that he’s going to do, who’s going to be responsible?” Baboth asked.
Sadie Kuehn, a former Vancouver School Board trustee and current human rights advocate who was at the meeting, said her “dream” is that action will be taken within the next year “to correct the harm that’s been done.”
“Victims of hate [should] be a priority in our city, rather than the people who perpetuate hate and target other folks being looked after, which is what we’ve seen now,” she said.
While no future meeting dates have been set, Tate said the BC Community Alliance has asked the district for 30-, 60- and 90-day goals to ensure the meeting wasn’t just talk.
“Hopefully we’ll see things sooner than we have in the past.”