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How a Targeted Teen, a School Trustee and More Are Helping Make a New Anti-Hate Policy

‘How do you support people harmed by this?’ asks a parent.

Katie Hyslop 15 Nov 2019TheTyee.ca

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

A Vancouver School Board trustee has for months been working with parents and others to strengthen the district’s response to acts of hate. A new policy may be the result — but critics say the slow pace of the process itself shows why some parents are frustrated by official response on this issue.

Last May first-term trustee Jennifer Reddy gathered 15 parents, community members and experts in policy and law to draft a motion for the school board to hire an expert to create a policy for responding quickly, and then deeply, to an act or crime of hate.

When one occurs in schools now, says Reddy, district and school staff can turn to what she calls “guidelines” in an Administrative Procedures handbook that tells them how to make an assessment of student safety, handle hate materials and take other immediate actions.

But the guidelines don’t say what administrators must offer students or parents in support over time, nor what actions will be taken to change school culture to prevent further such incidents.

That has left the board stymied, says Reddy, when fielding complaints about how the district responded to hateful acts in Vancouver schools.

“People aren’t necessarily sure where to go when they’ve witnessed or experienced something like this. So I thought it was important to help work with them to validate what they’re actually feeling,” said Reddy.

She sees the need for policies more firm than guidelines, and broader in their prescriptions.

At Lord Byng Secondary, district administrators have received criticism for how they handled the discovery of an anti-Black video made by a Grade 10 student and shared online last fall. Almost a year later, two Black students have left the school because they no longer felt safe.

Another such moment occurred in the spring when a homophobic, racist, sexist and anti-Semitic list of nearly 100 Eric Hamber Secondary students, entitled “100 Biggest F-gs”, was made and shared online by Grade 12 students there.

One of the students whose name was on the list was Tate Chernen. He and his father are among the group working with Reddy to frame the new policy – one that meets both the district's short-term safety and risk assessment needs, as well as the medium- and long-term support needs of students and the wider school community.

The motion, presented to the board nearly five months ago, is a mere 129 words but getting it approved has proven arduous.

At the June 24 meeting, the board sent the motion to their policy and governance subcommittee for their input. The subcommittee, which reviewed the motion in October, sent it to the district’s legal department. It is expected to return to the subcommittee on Dec. 4 for a vote. If approved, the motion will be back before trustees for a vote in mid-December — six months after the motion was first presented to the board. (To read the motion, see sidebar.)

Hate on a friend’s screen

Tate Chernen, 17, and his father Nicholas Chernen, say Tate’s experience at Eric Hamber is an example of why the district needs to improve its responses to acts of hate. On March 5, a friend of Tate’s showed him a screenshot of the homophobic list that included Tate’s name. School administration also discovered the list that same day.

“At first I found it funny because I’ve dealt with a similar feeling of bullying and people being rude before,” said Tate, now in Grade 12.

“Just because of who I am, I didn’t take it personal because I know it’s not personal, but other things that were said on the list [about other students] led to me being super angry.”

The Chernens compare how the school and district responded to the list with how the district and Lord Byng secondary administration responded to the racist video last fall.

In both cases, the parents of students affected by the bullying were not contacted directly by the administration. Instead, the school sent out a vague email to all parents with kids in the school about “a serious breach of our school’s code of conduct.” That was two days after the list popped up on the phone of Tate’s friend. That night, March 7, Tate broke the news to his dad that he had been named on the list.

At Eric Hamber the district brought in extra counsellors for all the students. But it was the school’s Parent Advisory Council, the Chernens say, not the school administration, who shared information about when and where counsellors would be available, via an email sent to parents the morning of the first of two days that the counsellors were on site.

The Tyee reached out to the Eric Hamber Secondary Parent Advisory Council for comment, but did not receive a reply.

The Tyee also requested an interview with Hamber principal Marea Jensen or Selma Smith, district principal of Student Support Services. They were not available.

In an email to district communications manager Jiana Ling, The Tyee shared criticisms the Chernens made about how the issue was handled. Ling did not respond directly to the Chernens’ criticisms. Instead she directed The Tyee to a statement the district released March 8 about the Eric Hamber list.

“The school community, students and parents were very engaged and indicated they were pleased with the progress at the school,” Ling said via email to The Tyee.

Both the statement and principal’s letter said the school would follow-up with each “member of the school community” impacted by the list.

But Tate says it took two months for school administrators to reach out to him, and when they did, it wasn’t to inquire about his well-being. That call, the Chernens said, never came.

Instead, the school principal was asking Tate whether he would participate in a restorative justice circle with six other students named on the list and seven of the perpetrators.

“That’s when I really started digging into this, because the restorative justice circle was only 14 students,” Nicholas said. He had suggested a similar idea to school administrators shortly after the list was discovered, he said, but he wanted it led by restorative justice experts and open to the entire school community.

“When I found out this is how they were doing it, I really started to question how effectively the school and the district was going to be with this particular incident and in the future.”

Nicholas wondered, “How do you support people that are harmed by this?’”

He wondered, as well, whether the offending students had been punished, and what kind of climate was being entrenched in the schools via the administration’s response. But, much like parents at Lord Byng Secondary, he wasn’t getting any answers from the school or district.

“What was constantly being told to us was, ‘We’re doing things, but out of confidentiality we can’t share much of that,’” he said. Lawyers contacted by The Tyee confirm that the district is legally barred from revealing students names or whether they have been disciplined and how.

But some assurances sought by the Chernens didn’t require identities being revealed. “My response,” said Nicholas, “was, ‘If you don’t tell us what you’re doing, we’ll assume you’re doing nothing.’”

Getting nowhere with the administration at the school or district, Nicholas sought help from VSB trustees. That’s how the Chernens found themselves working alongside Reddy to create a motion for a new public school hate response policy.

Restorative justice event sparsely attended

Meanwhile, the Chernens, disappointed with the school’s restorative justice circle, which lasted less than two hours, decided to try to organize their own restorative justice events with experts in the practice.

They connected with Reconciliation Canada, an organization dedicated to fostering reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canadians, as potential experts to lead an in-school session for the whole school, and a public evening event for the wider community.

“The CEO of Reconciliation Canada [Karen Joseph] responded immediately and said, ‘We need to get involved and offer our support,’” said Nicholas. “And we met with them within a couple of weeks.”

The school administration turned down the idea of an in-school event, for reasons unknown to the Chernens.

Undeterred, they aimed for a public evening event in mid-June. The Jewish Community Centre of Vancouver agreed to host, and hundreds of invitations went out, the Chernens said. Fewer than 40 people showed up, including Tate and three other students with their parents; Vancouver School Board chair Janet Fraser*; Reconciliation Canada staff and volunteers; and First Nations community members.

“We’re an organization that holds space for everyone, where everyone knows they’re welcome and it’s safe to tell our stories to each other. It allows parties to have dialogue,” said Chief Robert Joseph, co-founder and ambassador of Reconciliation Canada.

“There is nothing more transformative than creating an understanding that didn’t exist before. And it’s through that deeper dialogue that transformative change begins to happen because of the deeper understanding.”

It wasn’t until Tate became a summer intern at Reconciliation Canada last summer that he realized how much time and energy the organization had put into helping him and his peers. “They really did drop a lot to help get this to work, plan it and make it happen,” he said. “I found it to be such a warm feeling to have so much love and support. No hesitation, very unconditional.”

It’s been a lot of work, too, for those pushing for a new VSB anti-hate policy. Since the motion was brought to the board last June, the Chernens have given presentations about it to the Hamber Parent Advisory Council meeting, at the school board’s policy and governance subcommittee, and the District Parent Advisory Council.

“Then there’s one more policy and governance committee meeting in the first week of December, and hopefully this motion, with whatever tweaks or changes, will then be getting approval to move it onto the board agenda for the following week,” said Nicholas.

That’s too slow, says the BC Community Alliance, an umbrella group of Lower Mainland organizations representing Black people. It levelled its criticism when announcing their intention to take the district to the BC Human Rights Tribunal for its response to anti-Black racism in schools.

“The motion includes urgent proposals to address some of the issues we have articulated over the last number of months. This process has been disappointingly and discouragingly long and arduous. We find the board’s lack of substantial action in this case problematic, to say the least,” reads the Alliance’s Nov. 10 press release.

Reddy said she would rather the board moved slowly if it means the eventual policy is meaningful and understandable to the people who need it.

As it stands now, the soonest the motion could be approved by the school board is at its meeting on Dec. 16. If that happens, Reddy hopes the district will quickly hire an expert and get started on consultations with students, school and district staff, and the wider community — with the aim of having a policy in place before the end of the school year.

In the meantime, she recommends students who experience or witness hate in their schools report it to a trusted adult, whether that’s school staff, parents or even Reddy herself.

“The most important thing people can do,” she said, “is reach out, talk to each other, and let somebody know who can do something about it.”

* Story updated on Nov. 15, 2019 at 11:55 a.m. to correct which Vancouver School Board trustee attended the Chernen-organized event.  [Tyee]

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