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Reports of racism in Burnaby schools bring trustees to tears

A staff report included comments from a community survey that garnered more than 11,000 responses from students, teachers, parents and community members

“I want the adults to know that racist remarks made me not want to be who I am; it made me want to change the way I was born.”

This and other comments from students, staff and parents talking about how racism in the Burnaby school district has impacted them got an emotional response from school trustees last week.

In June 2020, amid worldwide protests against anti-Black racism and police violence, the school board passed a motion directing staff to develop a district anti-racism action plan after consulting with community members, especially from Black, Indigenous and racialized communities.

“Nothing is off the table. We need to hear from everybody what the challenges are and what the issues are,” trustee Jen Mezei said at the time.

Since then, the district has heard from thousands of students, staff and parents in a community survey.

A summary of themes from that survey and direct quotes from responses were presented at a public online school board meeting on Nov. 23.

Among the themes that emerged in comments from staff were a lack of diversity in the district’s leadership and the challenges of speaking out against racism in the system.

“You can get a reputation for being an angry BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Colour), and this impacts your career prospects,” said one commenter.

Some students pointed to a peer culture that normalizes racism, including ignoring or disregarding racist jokes and slurs.

They also said staff brush off and ignore racist incidents and sometimes even contribute to racism in schools.

Among parents there were many personal accounts of racism and discrimination, according to the report, including people with accents feeling “unheard” and “disregarded.”

In all groups, however, there were also those who said racism doesn’t exist in local schools and that “talking about racism is making it a bigger problem.”

“Anti-racism means anti-white at its core,” wrote one student.

“The most recent significant impact was feeling uncomfortable during Pro D around being deemed white supremacist for teaching the curriculum,” said one teacher when asked what impact racism had had on them.

The district got more than 11,000 responses.

The survey, which closed on June 3, was completed by 4,328 students, 1,440 staff members, 2,478 parents and 574 community members.

There were also 3,155 student and 1,177 staff responses to open-ended questions.

“We really wanted to hear from people we don’t normally hear from, so we did a lot of promotion, a lot of reaching out,” district principal of equity, diversity and inclusion Beth Applewhite told trustees.

The survey responses were later read and analysed by teams made up of teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and students.

The highlights were then presented to the board.

Applewhite acknowledged some of the material was “heavy,” but she ended her presentation on a hopeful note.

“Equity is attainable; racial healing is possible; hope will help us reimagine,” she said.

Trustees gave the presentation an emotional, even tearful response.

Chair Jen Mezei told the NOW the board had not seen the material ahead of time.

“It was pretty powerful,” she said.

Mezei said she was “impressed at how staff and students felt safe enough to be vulnerable and to share their stories.”

Not all reflected positively on the district and local schools, but Mezei said all the feedback will help school officials work toward solutions.

“We need to be open to hear the good, bad and the ugly so that we know how we can move forward together as a system and as a board,” she said.

The next step in the district’s anti-racism consultation will begin in January, with a third-party organization engaging smaller community groups for a deeper dive into themes raised in the survey.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
Email [email protected]