“Every Black child needs an advocate in the school system—it’s how they survive”: A Q&A with the founder of Parents of Black Children
Charline Grant supports families whose children are experiencing racism in education. Now, she’s helping a mother who alleges that her six-year-old son was discriminated against by his teacher at John Fisher Public School
Earlier this month, a teacher, a principal and a vice-principal at John Fisher Public School in Lawrence Park were placed on home assignment while the TDSB further investigates allegations of anti-Black racism against a six-year-old student. The complaint describes multiple offences going back to the beginning of the school year, including an allegation that the child was locked in a closet-size room as a form of discipline. “Every Black child needs an advocate—it’s how they are going to survive the system,” says Charline Grant, co-founder of the charity Parents of Black Children, who is working with the mother of the John Fisher student to find a resolution. Here, she tells Toronto Life about the opportunity gap that Black students face and how systemic racism hides in plain sight.
Can you start by explaining what allegedly happened at John Fisher and how you got involved?
As part of my role with Parents of Black Children, I’m often put in contact with parents who are navigating racism in the school system. Still, this story was shocking. When I first spoke with the mom, in late February, she described a pattern of neglect and over-punishment dating back to the beginning of the school year, including an [alleged] incident where the boy was locked in a closet-size room for 30 minutes. When I met the mother in person, she had weeks of audio recordings that document interactions between her son and his teacher. She had placed a recording device in her son’s clothing in late January—not because she was looking to “catch” anyone but because the accounts of her son’s behaviour from his teacher were unlike anything she had ever seen from him at home or heard from other caregivers. She felt like this was the only way to get a clear picture of what was happening.
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Did the mom reach out to the school at all?
She says she made several attempts, starting back in September. During the first week of school, her son’s original teacher (who went on leave in September) had contacted her to say that her son was below provincial standards and should be taken off the French immersion track. She says the teacher described the boy as obnoxious and unpleasant to be around. When the mom went to the principal to complain, she says she was asked if she had any “proof” that the educator had spoken to her in this way. This kind of gaslighting is typical of the experiences of Black parents and Black families—our accounts are not believed. The very same week that I heard from the mother at John Fisher, Parents of Black Children had a meeting where we were discussing whether we should be advising parents to use recording devices. That might sound extreme, but how else can we fight back against a system that is constantly denying our reality or telling us that these experiences are not about racism?
I imagine that’s an attitude you come up against a lot: Sure, it’s bad, but how is it racist?
Absolutely it is. Systemic racism is built to hide within our systems. And, of course, it’s not that other students don’t have some of these same negative experiences within the education system: neglect, severe and inappropriate punishment. It’s just not at the same rates as Black students. For example, Black students are disproportionately streamed out of French immersion because French is seen as elite. If a white student is struggling, the solution would likely be extra support, whereas Black students are taken out of the program the same way they are streamed off the university track and directed to the trades. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the trades, but these examples reflect a culture of low expectations in which Black students are not given the same opportunities as other students. They are punished at higher rates, and they are not tested for gifted programs—except for sports.
Black boys in particular are often described and discussed using language that treats them as adults. The John Fisher mom says that her son’s teacher described him as “big”—which obviously has nothing to do with the way that he learns—but it’s a word we see frequently in the report cards of Black children. The mom described another incident that took place last October, when her son had his Halloween candy taken away. He said to the teacher, “You better give my Halloween candy back because my mommy is a lawyer and she will sue you.” The teacher then went to the principal and claimed that he felt threatened—by a six year old. After that, the teacher allegedly started sending the student to sit in the office. I’m not sure how many times exactly, but it was on multiple occasions.
What happened after Parents of Black Children got involved?
I first spoke with the mom last month. She told us about everything her son was dealing with and afterwards our organization emailed the school to notify them that a parent had come to us with allegations of anti-Black racism. We requested a meeting with all of the relevant parties—the administrators, the school superintendent, a representative from the office of equity—which took place on March 2 at John Fisher Public School. We went into the boy’s classroom and saw that his desk was actually segregated from the rest of the class. The rest of the desks are in groups of four towards the front of the room and this one child’s desk—the only Black boy in the class—was off on its own towards the back. And it was covered in derogatory words, some of which were racist: poo poo, which is a term other kids sometimes use to describe Black children’s skin. This is obviously a problem, but maybe even more shocking is that the school knew that we were meeting that day and still they left the set up as it was. After that meeting, the boy’s teacher as well as the principal and vice principal were placed on paid home leave pending further investigation.
The TDSB also issued a public apology and has retained an outside firm to further investigate. Are you satisfied with their handling of the situation?
I think that the response from the school board is what we expect when these kinds of serious reports are made. When parents reach out to us, it’s not because their child has experienced racism for the first time. Almost always, they have tried to manage the situation on their own and exhausted all options, so a call to us is a last resort. I know that the TDSB also reported the allegations to the police, who are in the process of investigating.
What do you make of the statement from the Ontario Principals’ Council that objects to the TDSB issuing an apology before an investigation and calls into question whether the student was locked in a closet?
Their statement reads as if the school did nothing to verify the allegations before taking action, but that is not true. I was present at the March 2 meeting, where the young boy was asked to identify the closet he was locked in, and he did so without hesitation. We saw the desk with the racist language, we heard the mother allege 48 incidents of racism against her child. The staff in question have not been suspended—they have been placed on paid home leave, which is what is supposed to happen when a complaint is made so that further investigation can follow. The rules of society are pretty clear: when a child comes forward and describes their trauma, their neglect, their hurt, we are supposed to believe them. Are the rules different for Black families and Black children?
There is also a petition circulating for parents to show support for the teacher. What would you say to parents who are signing?
I would say that I am happy that their children haven’t experienced egregious hate, harm and trauma. But the fact that their children haven’t experienced it does not invalidate the experience of another student. If you and I are in a workplace and I experience sexual assault and you don’t, that doesn’t mean the assault didn’t happen.
You founded PBC in 2019, before the Black Lives Matter uprisings and a global conversation on anti-Back racism. Have you seen improvement since then?
We have definitely achieved some key victories that I am very proud of. In 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, we advocated for the Ontario College of Teachers to amend its professional misconduct definition to include racism and discrimination by educators. That amendment was made in October 2020, though we are still pushing for the mandatory reporting of allegations of racism to the Ontario College of Teachers. There has also been the outlawing of Grade 9 streaming practices, which was long overdue. What I think has been the most profound in terms of change in the past few years is that more Black families are coming forward. Social media and stories that get attention in the mainstream are empowering people to speak up.
With the attention on the John Fisher case, we’ve heard from almost 30 parents from school boards across the province. Parents have told us that, for so long, they’ve known what has been happening to their children, but they felt like they couldn’t name it or they would be accused of “playing the race card.” Discrimination thrives when the victim feels like they are alone and like nobody would understand or believe them. We are bringing people together and saying, “Your voices matter.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A statement from the TDSB: “On Thursday, March 2, TDSB staff learned about reports of acts of anti-Black racism at John Fisher JPS. When reports of this nature are brought to our attention, we have no option but to take them very seriously. We have retained a firm to investigate this matter and remain committed to a fair and timely investigation. At this time they are working to obtain more information from those involved.”