“My son was excluded from the TDSB’s alternative school lottery. Now, I’m pursuing legal action”

“My son was excluded from the TDSB’s alternative school lottery. Now, I’m pursuing legal action”

Self-identifying as racialized was supposed to help Shezeen Suleman’s son get accepted to an alternative school. Then a technical error removed him from consideration entirely

In April, the TDSB admitted that there had been a mistake in the lottery for spots in alternative schools. Due to a technical error, applicants who identified as racialized, LGBTQ+, or disabled were not considered for the majority of spots. Shezeen Suleman's son Ily was affected, and now she's part of a group of 33 parents launching legal action to get answers and right the wrong.

In early April, the Toronto District School Board confessed that it had made a big mistake: a lottery process designed to help students from under-represented groups find places in alternative schools ended up excluding many of those same kids. The school board originally planned to accept all Indigenous applicants and siblings of current students for the 2023/24 school year. After that, via lottery, 25 per cent of the available spots would be given to students who self-identified as racialized, LGBTQ or disabled. Finally, the school board would distribute the rest of the spots among all remaining applicants through a random selection process. Yet, in the lottery stage, most under-represented students were removed from consideration entirely due to an unspecified technical error. Here, Shezeen Suleman, whose 11-year-old son Ily was affected by the screw-up, explains why a group of 33 parents is launching legal action against the TDSB to get answers and right the wrong.

My family of four lives in Brockton Village. I’m of Indian origin, a daughter of refugees, and my spouse, Ahmad, is Arab. We always wanted to send our son Ily to a school where he would see himself reflected in the community and teaching staff. Since kindergarten, he’s been attending a local alternative elementary, the Grove Community School. We almost didn’t send him there because the student body was overwhelmingly white, but another parent told me that the school was committed to speaking honestly about race in class. That was the deciding factor. We wanted our kids’ education to reflect what we valued at home: questioning authority; understanding misogyny, racism and heteronormativity; and standing up when something is wrong. We appreciated how the Grove chose to teach kids about these difficult subjects in an age-appropriate way.

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In January, as Ily was about to apply to new schools for Grade 7, the board announced that it was introducing a more equitable admissions process for alternative schools. Students would now be able to indicate if they were Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ or living with a disability, in order to be prioritized in a lottery for a portion of the spots. Previously, individual schools had their own applications, which meant that there could be a level of discrimination embedded in the process. For example, the Grove used to ask parents how they might be able to volunteer their time for the school. It’s a difficult question for those who have to work.

For me, the equity measures were a welcome change. When you reserve spots for communities that may have been locked out in the past, you change the broader nature and demographics of the school, especially since siblings of existing students get into schools automatically. Over time, the TDSB’s equity measures would mean more racialized students, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities getting accepted. In the short term, it told marginalized families, “You can trust this space. We want to make room for you.” Or so we thought.

In early March, after touring a few schools, we sat down to make Ily’s applications on the TDSB’s online portal. There were two applications: one for open enrolment in non-alternative public schools that are outside of your catchment zone and a second lottery system to get into alternative schools. Ily opened the portal and ticked off that he was racialized on the lottery application. To our knowledge, he was the only kid in his class doing so. It was a big deal for him: we spend a lot of time in our house talking about what equity looks like, and by checking that box, he got to live that for a second.

A technical error excluded eleven-year-old Ily from the third stage of the TDSB’s alternative school lottery

We sent his application out into the ether and waited. On March 8, the results for the alternative schools came back. Ily had been wait-listed. And yet, other children in his class had got in. We were puzzled, but I trusted the system. “Them’s the breaks,” I told him. But kids talk. Ily would come home and tell me, “So-and-so got in.” Children behind him on the wait list, who didn’t have equity considerations, were mysteriously getting accepted. Alarm bells went off in my head, but I was still telling him, “We have to trust the system they built. They built it with equity in mind. This must just be bad luck.”

On March 23, we got an email from the TDSB saying that all the spots for alternative schools were accounted for. Fine—Ily would go to his home school. But, two weeks later, we got another, oddly cagey email from the TDSB, titled “TDSB equity admissions lottery process.” I clicked it open, but I didn’t even get to the bottom of the message. It seemed like they were describing the process after the fact. “Whatever,” I thought. “My kid just didn’t get in.”

The next day, a friend flipped me a Toronto Star article, and I came to understand that the email I’d received wasn’t what I’d thought it was at all. When I re-read it, I realized that there had been an error: after assigning kids from under-represented groups to 25 per cent of the 362 slots in alternative schools, the TDSB had then held a second lottery for the other 268 slots. But, at this stage, instead of distributing the slots among everyone left, they excluded the remaining kids from under-represented groups. The second lottery was held, and Ily was never given a chance. The TDSB blamed a technical error on the part of its third-party vendor, took no responsibility and, above all, emphasized that the kids who got the spots would keep them. They would not be redoing the lottery.

It felt like a slap in the face. Confused, I couldn’t help but feel that the TDSB was trying to avoid disturbing the white families whose kids had got in. I opened a WhatsApp group that I share with the parents of Ily’s friends, all of whom are white, and started recording a voice message. “If I’m indeed correct about what’s happening,” I said, “I think there is some white fragility on the part of the TDSB. I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: I’m going to call you all in. White families need to say, ‘We will not accept these results, even though our children got in.’” I asked them to write letters, because I knew my own complaints would be dismissed—I’d be seen as just another angry BIPOC mom.

And then I sat there, shell shocked. What the hell would I tell my kid? We sent our kids to an alternative school so they could understand the systems that allow white people to hold power over racialized people’s lives. As adults, these systems are inescapable—they show up when we’re applying for jobs, when we’re looking for housing, when we interact with police or the courts. We work hard to protect our children from them. But, that day, discrimination landed right in Ily’s lap.

Shezeen is one of 33 parents launching legal action against the TDSB

After my husband and I digested the news, we sat down with Ily and laid out the facts of what had happened. He was upset and in disbelief. “Why didn’t they test this thing before they launched it?” he asked. Good question! We asked him what a satisfactory resolution would look like for him. “Oh, well, they have to redo it, right?”

We had received the TDSB’s email at the start of the Easter long weekend, and it felt like the board was trying to sweep it under the rug. Only one of the seven other parents in my WhatsApp group responded to my message, and I spent my weekend wondering, “Where are they? Is it because their kids all got accepted?” The next week, at a parent council meeting, I explained what had happened to parents I had known for years. I asked them, “Where have you been?”

They were shaken. I don’t think they had been fully aware that a kid at their school was affected by the lottery error or that, by not speaking out, they were inadvertently supporting the TDSB’s choice. It was heart-warming to see that they actually cared. Since then, we’ve been organizing every night. We’re calling MPPs and trustees, and we’ve launched a petition. White families are stepping up and saying, “We don’t want this spot if it was given by a system that caused harm.”

Because the TDSB still hasn’t come up with a sufficient remedy, it’s forcing our hand. A group of us are now seeking legal action in the form of a judicial review process. On April 12, we sent the board a letter demanding that it either admit students from under-represented communities into their chosen schools or cancel the final stage of the lottery and do it over again. We made it clear that, if we didn’t get a response within a week, we’d push forward with legal action. The week passed, and we heard nothing.

A few days later, the board sent a letter saying it would make 98 existing seats available to students who had been excluded and that it had created an additional 34 seats. But it had already said in past communications that 89 spots were free because students had declined them. We don’t want leftover spots. We’re asking for a fair shake, an opportunity to participate. The only way I can conceive of that happening would be a redo.

I know the law moves slowly. At this point, as families, we are trying to find ways to make this right by our kids. Because, regardless of its intentions, the TDSB created a lottery system where the majority of spaces were reserved for white children. And that’s worse than no system at all.

In a letter the TDSB sent to parents on April 21, the board said it would offer an additional 132 spots in alternative schools to students who were excluded from the third stage of the lottery, a number that it said would slightly exceed original expectations if students accepted. These spots were either already available or created by maximizing space on a class-by-class basis. The board will also be undertaking a full review of the application process.