I got several calls and messages last week from people asking for advice about an online video of a Vancouver high-school student making threatening, racist statements, including how he hated black people and hoped they would all die. "I just want to line them all up and just chuck an explosive in there and go kaboom.”
It’s chilling, ugly, and awful, and while I’m no lawyer, it sounds to me like a possible threat to commit a violent hate crime.
Most of the people who contacted me were rightly concerned about black students feeling unsafe at school after seeing the video, and some said they felt the threats weren’t being taken seriously enough by both the school and the Vancouver school board (VSB), and that the discipline meted out to the boy was inadequate.
That’s an understandable reaction, but I see the incident and the response differently.
Having been a school trustee and board chair, I’ve been privy to what actually happens when there are serious incidents involving students. It’s a lot more than the public usually knows, and for good reasons.
What people—even normally progressive and thoughtful ones—often don’t consider is that schools and school boards have as much a duty to care for the perpetrators as they do the victims. And in my experience, they do both quite well.
The VSB response
I suspected the video incident was being taken seriously by the school and the VSB, and it turns out it was. I asked the VSB by email about how it was responding. I was told via a district spokesperson that “We are deeply troubled about a racist video that was recorded by a student from Lord Byng Secondary School, which was subsequently shared online. This type of behaviour is unacceptable and not tolerated. We take this very seriously and have involved several organizations and agencies.
“Every step is being taken to address the seriousness of this matter. Following learning about the video, the school administration, in collaboration with the ministry of education, Safer Schools Together, the Vancouver police department (VPD) and other organizations, a risk assessment has been completed and through that process, it was determined that there is not a threat to any one at the school.”
The statement went on to say online comments about the school’s response were inaccurate and that the “district cannot share personal matters about individual students” and that staff were working with the student, their family, and the police “to implement the appropriate level of disciplinary and restorative actions”.
The VSB also noted it will be taking “every measure” to ensure the emotional health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff members" and it's striking a committee of students and teachers to “determine the best way to support the school moving forward and heal.”
That sounds like a comprehensive and appropriate response to me.
I don’t know anything about the student who made the statements in the Byng incident, and I shouldn’t. When I was chair of the VSB, and there were incidents involving students that became public and in the news, I was briefed on the details, including information about the students and how the school and district was responding. I was bound by provincial privacy law not to share that information.
In some cases, the offender had serious mental health issues or a condition like fetal alcohol syndrome. In others, they’d been badly abused. They might have been in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, or they might have lived with loving and kind parents who were as shocked and upset about what they’d done as everyone else was. In some cases, they’d been receiving supports and counselling for various problems for years; in others, they had an older sibling or relative who was involved in violent gang activity.
I learned to be cautious about jumping to conclusions without knowing all the information and full context, and that the public often only knows a small fraction of what is happening in response to the offence. I learned that is often very frustrating and disappointing for parents of students, and students themselves, who are victims of offences.
Rumours about the Byng student and this racist incident seem to be spreading like wildfire and I’ve seen all kinds of speculation about him online. I don’t know what is true and what is not, aside from the fact he is a minor. Based on my experiences at the VSB, I urge people to take a deep breath and refrain from calling for harsher treatment or judging his family, without knowing all the facts.
I’m not intending to minimize the seriousness of the statements and the impact they are having on other students and their families. That must be taken seriously as well, and I believe they are.
What are we trying to accomplish when we discipline children and youth?
When children and youth do awful things, it’s an opportunity. I remember an incident several years ago when two students took a thick Sharpie marker to a school and wrote horrendous, slanderous things about a teacher and drew vulgar pictures all over the walls. The students were caught and their parents were horrified and embarrassed.
What followed was quite remarkable. The school administration brought in the school’s VPD liaison officer, who led an age-appropriate, restorative response. The process that followed had the students learn how to take responsibility for what they had done, meet with and apologize to the staff person they’d written about, and make reparations to cover the cost of the graffiti removal.
It was done in a private and respectful manner, with no shaming involved. The students were made to understand that they’d made a mistake that had harmed someone else, and that they could take responsibility and resolve the situation. Valuable lessons were learned and I believe the students came out of that with stronger self-esteem and sense of responsibility. They also stayed connected positively to their school community and their parents.
It’s my hope that when children and youth make mistakes, even ones that hurt or threaten others, they’re responded to with a goal to educate and support them to learn from the experience and come out of it wise, stronger, and with a sense of having taking responsibility for a mistake and doing everything possible to correct it. They shouldn’t be defined by their offences. They should be given a supported opportunity to learn from them.
I hope the Byng student who made the horrendous, racist statements comes out of this with a deep understanding of why what he did was so wrong, and with a feeling that his community cares about him and is supporting him to be better. I want him to have an opportunity to make sincere amends to those he has harmed by making them feel unsafe in their own school. I want him, and all students, to know that even when we make terrible mistakes, we can take responsibility for them and do our best to fix them. I want those who were hurt or frightened by the statements to feel confident the student has learned and will continue as a member of the community, and that the community will come together and be stronger.
What else needs to happen
Having served eight years on the VSB, I tend to look at things systemically. The Byng case is a stark reminder that racism is, unfortunately, still very much a part of our society and our schools. Statistics Canada is actually reporting a sharp increase in reported “crimes motivated by bigotry”. People of African ancestry are being targeted disproportionately. The school system can’t be complacent in the face of this alarming trend. Schools need to keep focusing on building and nurturing a culture of inclusion that respects and celebrates diversity. It must challenge the rise in racism—that’s been notable since the election of Donald Trump—head-on.
School boards must provide supports and access to resources for schools to do this important work in a way that is meaningful and relevant to students.
For many years, the VSB had an antiracism teacher mentor who worked out of the school district office to support teachers and school administrators and provide expertise and advice on issues relating to racism. VSB senior managers advised the trustees to cut that position during deliberations over the 2016–17 operating budget, due to a funding shortfall. That was one of many cuts in that budget that five out of the nine trustees, including me, refused to approve. We were ultimately fired by the former B.C. Liberal government for that, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
After we were fired, the government appointed the former superintendent of the Delta school district, Dianne Turner, to replace the elected board. Turner promptly approved the budget, including cutting the antiracism position. She also approved raises for the VSB’s highest-paid senior managers, which I’m fairly sure added up to a lot more than what the antiracism job cost.
If I were a newly elected trustee on the VSB, I’d be bringing a motion forward to restore the antiracism teacher mentor position and restore the district’s antiracism committee, that was also eliminated by Turner after the former board was fired. Turner merged the antiracism committee with the VSB’s Pride committee, to create a more generic “diversity” committee. I’d argue both areas were much better served by dedicated committees comprising representatives with specific expertise in those areas.
I’d invite community leaders who work in the antiracism field to join the committee and provide advice on what more the VSB can do to educate students about racism and ensure schools are safe places for everyone. I’d fund and support students to organize a districtwide youth forum on fighting racism in our schools and society.
I’d take this awful incident as a warning that we need to do better.