The mother of a Black-Indigenous student whose substitute teacher used the N-word in class wants to encourage students to continue to speak out against racism.
The incident happened Monday afternoon in a Grade 11 English class at Grant Park High School on the last day of Black History Month.
Melanie Ferris says her son told her the substitute teacher led a discussion around the N-word and how 'we don't use it.'
"Unfortunately the substitute teacher said the N-word in full and this very much upset the students in the class," said Ferris.
"I think it's shameful. I think it's sad. I was very upset to hear this. I think one of the things that we need to think about is, a lot of times the education system is not working for students of colour. It's not working for students who are in minority groups. And we need to think about why that is."
She said her 16-year-old son, who is Black and Indigenous, was at a loss over how to react. He said one of his classmates, who is Black and sits in the front row, left to go tell the principal, while others reacted with laughter and jokes.
Ferris said her son told her he was laughing at the substitute teacher, who was white, and she "called him out on it," telling him she felt disrespected and was going to write him up.
Ferris said when she called Grant Park's principal Tuesday, he told her he was "disgusted and appalled" that it had happened. She said he told her he had contacted human resources, planned to speak to the students directly and wanted to make sure the substitute teacher did not return to the school.
"I'm really thankful my son said something, I'm really thankful that the principal sounds to be taking this very seriously, I hope that he is talking to my son's class to reassure that they are taking steps to address this, and I hope the story shows that it's really important for students to come forward and share these types of experiences and for us to rectify it moving forward," said Ferris.
Internal review underway
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg School Division confirmed they are aware of the situation and an internal review process is underway.
"We do take situations like this very seriously and our internal processes will determine if we do need to take further action both with the individual and throughout the school division," Radean Carter said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
She also noted Winnipeg School Division staff are required to complete ongoing training modules related to human rights and diversity.
"Who's doing it? What is the training? What is the framework modules, what does that mean?" asked Suni Matthews, a retired principal for the Winnipeg School Division who now co-chairs Equity Matters, a group committed to bringing diversity and equity to the education system to improve student outcomes.
She said diversity and anti-racism training should be led by people of colour, supported by white allies and designed to both educate and hold staff accountable.
"Racism is learned. It can be unlearned. But it's an ongoing journey.… It's not a one-shot workshop," she said, noting when she was principal at Dufferin School, the anti-racist training and equity course led by consultant Enid Lee lasted five years and included feedback and follow-up with teachers.
In Manitoba, there have been at least two other incidents in the past year where a teacher used the N-word in front of a class of students.
Jordan Bighorn, a Lakota man who serves as parent representative for Equity Matters, said he's appalled but not surprised it has happened again.
"I feel for the students. The students, especially students of colour, Black students, they're probably the minority in the class. The laughter, I'm not surprised, because they're uncomfortable, they don't know how to respond. They're impacted by it," he said.
He added the use of the word by the teacher demonstrates a lapse in their own education and understanding, and how they respond to the fallout of saying it matters.
"This is the weight that a community has borne since they were stolen and brought to this part of the world. And that's what is coming out when this word is used in this way," he said.
He said while training is an important aspect of the response, ensuring schools have more diverse staff representation is crucial too.
"A physical presence, you're taking up space where you weren't included or involved with for quite some time. Where it shrinks the possibility of passing the incident under the table," he said.
He applauds the Winnipeg School Division for unanimously voting to adopt an education equity office, which will oversee anti-racism initiatives and collect diversity data in its 78 schools in the coming school year.
"This situation will create immediate responses and opportunities to progress, and hopefully we can get there quickly with acknowledging the time to allow for some healing and some grieving and some anger to be expressed, because this should not happen."
Ferris said while this wasn't the first time her son has encountered the N-word or racism, it was the most overt example, and she wants him and all students to know that they did nothing wrong.
"I'm really happy for the students who stand up and say something. And I think I just want to encourage them. Obviously my son doesn't want to talk to the media about this but for the students who feel strong enough to talk to their parents, talk to the media, talk to the teachers, principals, I just want them to keep raising their voice and know that their voice matters."
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