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Rights + Justice

Two Years Ago, a Racist Video Rocked a Vancouver School. Here’s What’s Happened Since

District points to motions, meetings and training. But some parents say they don’t see evidence of real change.

Katie Hyslop 20 Nov

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

Despite the pandemic, Changich Baboth is thriving in her Grade 12 studies. It was a far different situation two years ago when she was a Grade 10 student at Lord Byng Secondary School.

On Nov. 19, 2018, Changich, who is Black, told Lord Byng administration about a video circulating online featuring another Grade 10 student at the school saying he wanted to murder Black people.

By February 2019, both Changich and the student who made the video would be out of Lord Byng Secondary.

According to a statement released by the video-making student’s family, they opted to switch schools for the remainder of the year after an initial three-day suspension for the offence turned into a five-week suspension.

Changich and her mom Rita Baboth say she was driven from Lord Byng by the administration’s refusal to acknowledge the harm done to Black students at the school, and its inability to effectively respond to subsequent racist bullying she faced.

A few months later, a second Black student would leave Byng because of rumours the video-making student would return to Byng for Grade 11.

Suzanne Daley, that student’s mother, said her child went on to experience anti-Black racism from peers multiple times at their new school. The Tyee is withholding the student’s name to protect them from further bullying.

The Tyee has previously reported on the fallout from Changich reporting the video, using the alias “Elise” to protect Changich from further bullying.

While Changich has moved on, she’s still experiencing the fallout from her decision to report the racist video.

She had competed to get into the Lord Byng arts mini-school and was forced to abandon that dream. Instead she’s enrolled in the district’s Distributed Learning program, meaning pandemic or not, her schooling is entirely online.

She has fewer friends now and remains traumatized by what happened.

“I keep to myself a little more than before. I’m not as trusting,” she said. “I’m just going to counselling for it, so I’m finally going through the trauma. But it’s still a very traumatic experience for me.”

But Changich has no regrets about reporting the video.

Nor does her mother Rita, who has launched a BC Human Rights Tribunal case against both the Vancouver School Board and the Vancouver Police Department over how the racist and threatening video was handled.

The case is currently in mediation.

But Baboth says she’s done with trying to get the school board to educate staff and students on the impacts of racism on Black and Indigenous people and people of colour.

“I feel like we just talk and talk, and nothing is really being done,” Baboth said. She hasn’t met with anyone from the school board since December 2019.

Rita and Changich are part of a broader group of families, allies and community members pushing the Vancouver School Board for mandatory anti-racism education in schools and changes to how reports of racism are handled.

“They were saying that they’re listening. I don’t know if they’re actually listening,” said Rita.

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Parent Rita Baboth gave the Vancouver School Board failing grades for its response to racism. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

For its part, the school district maintains it’s responded.

Since the beginning of 2019, the board says it has made a number of changes, including:

But those changes took two years and a lot of advocacy work from the community, notes Marie Tate, a founder and former member of the BC Community Alliance, an umbrella group of Black organizations and allies created in response to the Lord Byng incident. Baboth is also a former member.*

“There’s a lot in the last couple of years of intent versus impact,” she said. “They can claim their intent was A, B, C and D, but, in the end, how has that impacted the students that deal with this on an ongoing basis?”

More importantly to the families, none of the changes are being felt by their children in the district’s schools.

As far as her child is concerned, Daley says, nothing has changed.

“I just want to know where is the sense of urgency to impact my child?” she said. “Where is the accountability and compliance portion of this?”

Superintendent, board chair refuse interview requests

The Tyee requested interviews with district superintendent Suzanne Hoffman and Vancouver School Board chair Janet Fraser about how the district has changed the way it responds to racism in the two years since the incident. Neither was made available.

Instead a district spokesperson and Fraser sent The Tyee an identical email listing all the anti-racism work the district has completed since the video went public.

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Vancouver school superintendent Suzanne Hoffman wouldn’t be interviewed, but sent a statement pointing to actions taken since the racist video was reported. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

In December 2019, just over a year after the video was discovered and reported, the Vancouver School Board unanimously passed a motion to hire an outside expert to help create an anti-racism policy for responding to racism and “acts of hate.”

The motion, originally brought forward by trustee Jennifer Reddy, had taken six months to wind its way through the board, its policy and governance subcommittee and district lawyers before it was approved.

Audrey Ackah, legal counsel for the BC School Trustees Association, was appointed as the outside field expert in January. The COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, and now, almost a year later, the promised community consultations on the policy have yet to begin.

However, Ackah has overseen the updating of three of the district’s administrative procedures that provide guidance to staff on student conduct, race and religious-based harassment and non-discrimination. The updates can be seen here.

For example, the non-discrimination procedure now includes references to “acts of hate,” “prejudice” and “bias,” as well as committing schools to more transparency around their response to racism and religious harassment. It encourages restorative justice and restitution and requires followup and support for all affected members of the school community. And it outlines a step-by-step complaint process for students and a guide for school administrators in handling complaints.

The district student code of conduct now includes “racism” and “acts of hate” and emphasizes that parents of both the perpetrator and the victim must be informed when a complaint is brought forward.

In the case of the Lord Byng incident, Rita Baboth says the school never contacted her to let her know about the video and her daughter’s involvement. She had to find out from Changich.

All school-based codes of conduct must now explicitly state racism will not be tolerated, which was noted in schools’ newsletters. Lesson plans on racism were also distributed to schools, but they are not mandatory.

The districts’ Violent Threat Risk Assessment tool for evaluating threats against school safety has also been updated to include “racism,” “discrimination” and “acts of hate.”

Mandatory anti-racism training for all Vancouver school district staff will begin in February, the district says. The inability to find a second available training day this school year means some staff won’t receive anti-racism training until September.

The board also passed motions to provide an additional non-instructional day, or Pro-D Day, in the 2021/22 school year specifically for anti-racism training. And it will be writing to the Education Ministry asking that a full day of anti-racism training be added to all districts’ calendars, accompanied by funds for training.

In Vancouver, at least one staff member in every school has volunteered to be trained on becoming an anti-racism lead — a “school-based point person” around racism and diversity.

Other staff training and support will be offered by the district’s resource teacher on diversity and anti-racism. School principals and vice-principals interested in anti-racism work will also meet with trainers to help them include anti-racism goals in their professional growth plans.

Upcoming anti-racist events the district is planning include the BIPOC Indigenous Focus Day for all staff on Nov. 27, which features speakers discussing dismantling white supremacy culture and the fallout of colonialism on Indigenous people. As well, staff will listen to a youth panel discuss their experiences with racism in the schools.

The district has also begun work on a five-year anti-racism strategic plan, which was also approved by the board last December. It delivered an interim report Oct. 14 on plans for the next three years.

The team of district staff working on the strategy includes at least one Indigenous person, principal of Indigenous education Chas Desjarlais, but no Black people. The district plans to add outside community members to the team in the future.

Changes at Lord Byng

Meanwhile, at Lord Byng Secondary, additional changes have been implemented.

Since Changich reported the video two years ago, staff and students formed the Byng Advocacy Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which held events including assemblies and activities in the last school year. Events and discussions are virtual this year.

Staff participated in Peace Circle training, facilitated by the district’s diversity team, and had “professional learning” discussions on systemic racism, racism and racist violence and hate, which include reading books on the topic.

Lord Byng has also identified Inclusion and Diversity as one of their four pillars of education at the school, joining Social and Emotional Learning, Indigenous Teaching and Learning, and Student Engagement.

Students were informed of the new learning pillar at one of three all-student assemblies dealing with racism. Another assembly was about the Red Cedarwood Heartwood River project, a sculpture and anti-racism project. The third, in September, focused on “Safe and Caring Schools” and outlined the school guidelines around racism, discrimination, hate speech and hate-based violence.

There was also a Black History Month assembly in February.

Principal Geoff Taylor, who oversaw the response to the racist video in 2018, moved to King George Secondary in January 2020. Mike Vulgaris remains a vice-principal at Lord Byng.

Rita and Changich allege both Vulgaris and Taylor, along with the Vancouver Police Department’s school liaison officer, dismissed Changich’s concerns about attending school with the student who made the video.

Hope turns to disappointment

When the school board voted unanimously in December to hire a field expert to create a policy on responding to racism, the Baboths felt hopeful.

“It felt like creating some real change and putting something in place that needed to be in place. I still believe it’s good that it’s there,” said Changich.

But since last year, that feeling of hope has soured. Instead of urgency about creating change, they’ve seen multiple board and subcommittee meetings, and well-crafted statements condemning racism without followup action to bring real change.

“When it comes to racism, people pretend like they’re dumb, like they don’t really know what to do,” said Rita, adding her daughter’s case was not the first — and will not be the last — case of racism in a Vancouver school.

“I’m not sure they actually see it as painful as it is.”

Daley agrees the board has done work to become more anti-racist and is “cautiously hopeful” that more changes are coming before her child graduates in a few years. But she maintains none of that work is being felt by students in district schools.

“There was a one-day anti-racism summit on Feb. 4. My child said, ‘Mom, they’re only inviting 10 kids from each school, there’s not a poster in my school,’” she said.

“It was 10 kids from each school who were probably LGBTQ or discriminated against. It’s not the kids who need the education, it’s the kids who have an interest in anti-racism. Not a super impactful use of school board time, staff and money.”

Daley would like to see more Black, Indigenous and people of colour in teaching and administration roles in Vancouver schools, and notes the principal sets the tone in dealing with racism in schools.

Additionally, she and her child, who also spoke to The Tyee, would like to see mandatory anti-racism education for students in Grades 6 and 7 and a zero-tolerance policy for racism similar to what’s already in place for cheating, with specified consequences, including expulsion.

“Cheating is way less common than discrimination, as plagiarism has a zero-tolerance policy. It works as kids know that there are actual consequences to cheating,” said Daley’s child.

Daley points to two recent suicides of Black students in Alberta and Saskatchewan who were subjected to repeated racist bullying as examples of what will happen if Vancouver students don’t see real change.

Bruce Wiesner, associate dean of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, has a white son at Lord Byng and a Black daughter who will attend the school in a few years.

He says the school community needs to take a hard look at how it responded to the video. It’s a mark of failure, he said, that no efforts were made by the school community to welcome back either Changich or Daley’s child after they left.

“I just can’t get past that, that to me is so tragic,” he said.

“And I can’t help but ask myself, if my daughter goes to the school in a year-and-a-half, will the community be there for her?”

A coming crisis for VSB schools?

Advocate Tate, who has attended several school board, committee and closed door meetings with district officials since November 2018, says the district has been delaying or derailing anti-racism work.

For example, when school trustee Reddy introduced a motion in June calling for mandatory anti-racism training for all staff, the board delayed action and called for studies to find out how much it would cost and whether the district could afford it.

“There seems to be a little bit of feigned ignorance or feigned, ‘Oh, we just don’t have the time, there’s so much on our plate,’ and ‘we have so little resources,’” Tate said.

“How does the school system lack resources when they have over $8 billion in assets?” (BC Assessment determined the district’s 125 buildings and 600 acres of land were valued at $7.6 billion in 2018.)

Tate added that if Black, Indigenous and people of colour continue to feel Vancouver schools are unsafe for their children, they will take their kids elsewhere. That would mean the district would lose the per-student funding that is its major revenue source.

Reddy has been behind many of the anti-racism motions the board has voted on since November 2018. Speaking for herself and not on behalf of the board, she said delaying tactics are in play.

“I’ve noticed how rules are used and misused to advance certain agenda items, and also postpone other agenda items. You can track — agenda items that affect racialized communities get deferred, referred, postponed and sometimes forgotten on agendas,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s for further consultation. But other times, our values should be sufficient to help us make urgent decisions when they need them.”

For example, Reddy points to her June 2019 motion to remove the Cecil Rhodes plaque at L’École Bilingue Elementary School, commemorating the founder of Rhodesia and apartheid.

“Very explicit anti-racist decision; it took two or three meetings to get that removed. It’s like, we needed community consultation on it: what else do we want to know about this guy? We don’t need to harm people more,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of rules in place by design that enable anti-racism to be deferred, referred, postponed and delayed.”

Daley and Tate also took issue with a May 24 motion from trustee Allan Wong calling on the district to investigate whether COVID-related racism is happening in their schools and to send memos to staff members and students emphasizing racism will not be tolerated.

This followed several cases of racist threats and assaults against people of East Asian descent in the city, related to the pandemic.

Both felt Wong was singling out kids of East Asian descent for protection, when they had been asking for such anti-racist action on behalf of all students since November 2018.

In an interview with The Tyee, Wong said he understands why families may view his motion that way.

But he said it’s important to consider it in the context of the rapid increase of anti-Asian racism reported to the Vancouver Police Department this year and across North America.

“It was specifically dealing with anti-Asian hate crimes and comments at the time,” he said, adding pandemic-based racism is still being directed at the community.

“I do understand some of the comments made that there was hopes for a broader view, but at the time there were a lot of things coming out with regards to anti-Asian hate crimes.”

Wong noted he had also introduced a motion calling on the Education Ministry to incorporate mandatory Canadian Black history education in schools.

Reddy said she would like to hear from students about how the board’s anti-racism efforts are affecting their day-to-day experiences at schools. She also wants the board to collect more race and gender data on students to help it understand the issues. The district currently doesn’t collect race-based data beyond information on Indigenous students.

But she adds the board needs constantly to keep improving inclusion and anti-racism policies and practices.

“We do need to keep the pressure and the pulse on what’s happening and how it’s changing and evolving for people. So I don’t think it’s something that will ever catch up with or address or get ahead of with a single training or a single policy,” she said.

The Baboths have stopped paying attention to the school board’s racism responses or anything to do with the fallout from Changich’s decision to report the video, except for their ongoing human rights case.

Instead, Rita has put her hope in young people of all races she saw gathering to fight injustice in education, policing and the justice system this summer during the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement across North America.

“My hope is change will come from young people, right now,” she said.

“Because old people don’t want to change but the young people have time to change, they can change, and they can have a better future and better community than what we have right now.”

* Story updated Nov. 24 at 3:55 p.m. to include that Rita Baboth was a former member of the BC Community Alliance.  [Tyee]

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