Sitting on a couch in her living room, 10-year-old Michelle Lucien points to a bruise on her left ankle. Her crutches sit in a corner of the room.
“My ankle got sprained when this boy at school kicked me and me trip,” says Michelle. “He called me a black bitch.”
Michelle is a grade 5 student at Bayshore Public School. Her mother, Girlsen Lucien, says Michelle has experienced racial discrimination at school for over two years.
Every day since November 1992, when Michelle returns from school she writes in her green journal. She writes that classmates have kicked her and tried to push her down stairs, called her “queer” and “black bitch” repeatedly, lied that she choked them to get her in trouble with the principal and screamed intimidating words at her like “Klu Klux Klan.”
“Every day of our lives we worry that Michelle will be safe,” says Lucien, holding her husband’s hand. He finds Michelle’s situation so upsetting he cannot talk about it.
“We’re trying to deal with it,” says Lucien. “I always encouraged her to tell the teacher when she’s hit.”
Michelle says the teachers and administration at Bayshore don’t help her. She says they call her a liar and blame her for every fight she’s involved in. Lucien says the school administration is racist and treats her child unfairly.
“The school never believes her,” says Lucien. “They have suspended her four times since September without giving equal punishment to the children who fight with her.”
In her green journal, Michelle writes that when she’s in a fight, the teachers and school administration punish her severely and the other children mildly or not at all. She also writes they harass her by grading and yelling, label her a liar, call her down to the office every day to accuse her of things she did not do and call her names like “fat” and “stupid.”
Lucien says the school administration denies allegations of racism towards them or the school. The school’s comment on Michelle’s situation requires the permission of her parents under Bill 49 in Ontario legislature. The school administration had not received the parent’s permission in time to make a comment for this story.
In a seven-page report, the principal of Bayshore Public School, Valerie Wright, summarizes the incidents Michelle was involved in since September 1990. She indicates that Michelle disobeys principals and teachers, called two teachers dummies and one a liar, caused parents to frequently complain about Michelle harassing their child and instigates fights with other children.
The principal also writes that Michelle’s parents are unable to be specific about charges of racism, except to say the school is being unfair to Michelle.
Lucien sent back a rebuttal to the principal.
“This is nonsense!” she writes. “These adults should make an effort to be honest in their recordings of their interaction with a 10-year-old black child in their school.”
Bayshore Public School is in the region of the Carleton Board of Education. Superintendent of school operations at the board, John Beatty, says there have been two cases of racial conflict he knows of over the past year, which have come to the attention of the board. Michelle’s case is one of them. The board does not keep statistics on how many racial conflicts occur across the schools.
“When the situation involves parental complaints, suspension, or media coverage, it comes to our attention,” says Beatty. “Many go unreported, many are only the knowledge of the principals.”
“Between the Luciens and Bayshore, I’ve never seen such a bitter and long conflict,” says Ray Sunstrum, a social worker and chairperson of the education committee at the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations.
Sunstrum, at the request of the Luciens, is attempting to resolve the conflict. He attended a meeting in January with the Luciens and the school administration.
“I’ve been actively involved in dealing with racism in schools for seven years,” says Sunstrum. “For things to get better, there needs to be a willingness to recognize the problem.”
The school administration has made attempts to resolve the conflict, which include:
· Transferring Michelle to a different grade 5 class.
· Transferring a girl who fights with Michelle out of the school.
· Suggesting Michelle has behavioural problems and should seek counseling.
· Suggesting Michelle leave the school, according to Girlsen Lucien.
· Having various meetings with the Luciens the superintendent of the Carleton Board of Education, and outside mediation agencies.
· Seeking outside mediation, which the Luciens denied.
Lucien says she doesn’t believe that the school wants to resolve the conflict.
“Their attitude is so bad,” says Lucien. “I see them screw up their faces at Michelle whenever she speaks. They always see her as the problem. The principal even said she had behavioural problems.”
Last fall, the Luciens took Michelle to see two psychiatrists. In November, Dr. G. I. Kambites at the children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario wrote a letter to the Luciens, that Michelle was not by nature a disobedient or delinquent child.
He wrote, “she is a child who has suffered from quite abundant stress and an inability at times to properly ventilate her anger as a result of factors beyond her control.” In the letter, he also encouraged the school to deal with the issue of racism.
June Girvain, education officer with the Ministry of Education in Ottawa, says the conflict has not been resolved, partly because the education system is not set up to deal with racial problems.
“This sort of situation happens too often,” says Girvain. “The school is a socializing place, with the idea that children should be obedient, the school is not designed to deal with assertive children, especially assertive black children.”
Michelle’s older brother Deleon, 13, graduated from Bayshore and Michelle’s younger sister Natasha, 8, is in grade 3 at Bayshore. Lucien says her other children have had problems, but not as frequently as Michelle.
“Deleon and Natasha are much quieter than Michelle,” says Lucien. “Michelle always sticks up for herself. She doesn’t think anyone should treat her badly, no matter who they are.”
Michelle says there is another black child in her class who never gets picked on by the other children.
“I don’t know why they (her classmates) always bother me,” says Michelle. “Maybe because I talk back and I hit back and I know I have rights.”
Sunstrum says the situation has not been resolved because the school administration is not recognizing the problem of racism.
“Racism is a taboo subject in schools, but it is there,” says Sunstrum. “In my experience, when racism comes up, schools always deny that it could be there. If you don’t recognize the problem, you can’t find a solution. The school system doesn’t deal with racism.”
Sunstrum says he has witnessed school psychologists telling racist jokes and guidance counsellours using racial slurs to describe children. He says educators must learn how to deal with racism. He’s planning workshops for principals in Quebec for April and May.
“The workshop will help principals to understand what racism is and what it does to those who experience it,” says Sunstrum. “Hopefully, training like this may help in stopping problems before they happen.”
Girvain says part of resolving the conflict may come from the child. She says often the child’s point of view is not sought in resolving the situation.
Michelle says she thinks that if her classmates were taught that racism is wrong, she wouldn’t be called so many names.
“We never talk about racism in class,” says Michelle. “When there are posters and stickers at school saying ‘Let’s Stop Racism,’ the kids always pull them down, and I find them in the garbage. I tell the teacher and they do nothing about it.”
The school administration of Bayshore said they are too busy to comment on the issue of antiracist education and the number of racial incidents in the school.
“I am inundated with report cards right now,” says Margaret Pimm-Dupuch, presently acting principal.
Girvain says that resolving the conflict is vital to the well being of the child in these situations.
“The troubling question is, how does what’s happening now surface in the child in grade 8 and 12?” asks Girvain. “When this happens to some children, they internalize it. Others like Michelle fight it and get a reputation. By time I hear of the situation, it’s often too late to help.”
When the alarm clock wakes Michelle up in the morning, she tries to pretend to her mother that she didn’t hear it and is still sleeping.
“I try to get up as late as I can, because maybe I won’t have to go to school then,” she says.
Lucien says despite all the days Michelle has missed from school because of suspensions and doctor appointments to check her bruises, her grades include some B’s.
Michelle hates school. She says the only reason she even goes is because she likes her new teacher. She also says that not everyone picks on her. She does have good friends.
Michelle says the greatest part of her day is when it’s time to leave.
Michelle says she only feels safe at home. Sitting on a chair in her living room, she pulls up her pants. Her legs are covered with scars and bruises. Michelle gingerly fingers a bruise below her left knee.
“This one is still sore,” she says.
Michelle’s mother is very concerned with all the bruises her daughter is getting from her school experiences.
“We know that those bruises aren’t just skin deep,” says Lucien. “ I just hope one day all the scars from this will heal.”