Kitchener, Ont., family sues Catholic school board alleging discrimination against 4-year-old boy

A Kitchener, Ont., mother is suing the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB), alleging staff and administrators failed to properly care for her four-year-old son and discriminated against him because of his race.

Grace, whose last name is being withheld to protect the identity of her child, filed the civil suit on June 16, nearly four months after it was publicly revealed police were called to John Sweeney Elementary School to de-escalate an incident involving her child. The child, who was in kindergarten at the time of the incident, is also listed as a plaintiff in the civil suit, with Grace as his litigation guardian.

The lawsuit seeks $1 million in damages, costs of the legal proceeding and any further relief that may be suggested by the courts. A copy of the lawsuit was obtained by CBC News.

“They victimized my son, they criminalized him, they adultified him … they didn’t accept him into their white space,” Grace told CBC News.

“They never allowed my child to be a child. They discriminated against him because of his race and his colour. Hopefully they didn’t take the child out of him completely.”

The lawsuit, filed at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Kitchener, claims the school board also failed to ensure staff had an understanding of anti-Black racism and could respond to Black students with cultural sensitivity.

It alleges the school board failed to accommodate the child’s behavioural needs, implemented learning changes without consent and ignored the family’s personal recommendations to help him.

The WCDSB told CBC News it is unable to comment any further on the matter as it will potentially go before the courts.

None of the allegations in the civil suit or in comments by the mother of the child have been proven in court.

‘He was just a normal 4-year-old’

Soon after the four-year-old was enrolled at John Sweeney Elementary School in September 2021, the school accused the child of being “disruptive and destructive,” court documents claim.

Grace told CBC News her child’s behaviour was “appropriate” for his age.

“He was just a normal four-year-old,” she said.

The civil suit claims the school went ahead with a safety plan for the child, without family approval. The plan isolated the child from his peers and requested he be assessed by an occupational therapist and get a medical assessment.

Despite her disapproval of the plan, Grace reached out to a child psychologist who said her son was too young to have any “meaningful” results on an assessment.

The court documents also detail several instances when the child allegedly wasn’t properly cared for, such as being refused washroom access and therefore wetting himself or running into a parking lot without supervision.

“It’s not the child in question. It’s not about his behaviour. It’s about what the school did and what they failed to do,” said Grace.

Police called on child

On Nov. 29, 2021, Grace, who had worked a night shift, missed a call from the school asking her to pick up her son within 15 minutes due to disruptive behaviour. She told the school she would be there in 25 minutes, court documents show.

Upon arrival, she learned the school had called police, who drove her child home.

“Why would they call the police on a four-year-old, for God’s sake?” Grace told CBC News.

“There’s no rationale for calling the police on a four-year-old.” She also said his behaviour wasn’t different from any other time she was called to pick him up.

“He went in the back of a police car, like a criminal … What did he do to deserve that?”

The child was then “excluded” from the school, meaning he was removed, the civil suit claimed.

The civil suit alleges the school failed to follow its own protocol of classification of incidents for calling police. The protocol suggests police can be called for various incidents, including assault, bomb threat and death.

A classification of incidents chart provided by the WCDSB shows the agreed-upon protocol between the board and Waterloo Region Police for when officers should be called to a school. (Waterloo Catholic District School Board)

After the incident was publicly revealed, Ontario’s education minister ordered a provincial third-party review of how the school board handled it. The review concluded with 14 recommendations to the board and five to the Ministry of Education on how to better address anti-Black racism.

Some of the recommendations to the board include hiring Black experts to address student behavioural concerns and amending policies to ensure staff are disciplined for racist or discriminatory actions.

The school board’s director of education, Loretta Notten, said in an April meeting that the board will review the recommendations for consideration and implementation. However, she said at the time, some of the recommendations go beyond the school board’s scope and will require provincial support.

She described the provincial report as a “blueprint to further action on anti-Black racism.”

In an email on Monday, a spokesperson with the Catholic school board said some of the recommendations were already in place when they were made by the government-appointed reviewer, and all recommendations were discussed with a member of the Ministry of Education’s equity department.

“But more significantly, there was a meeting with the Ministry of Education in April, as the government-appointed reviewer may not have fully understood what is within the authority of the school board and what will require action from the ministry,” said the emailed statement.

As well, it said, before the school board could take any further steps, it would need to hear back from the Ministry of Education.

“The school board requires that update first, in order to move forward.”

The spokesperson said trustees would be updated on progress made on the recommendations and the review in the fall.

Mom wants all recommendations in place

Grace said the school board’s response didn’t address wrongdoing and wants the board to implement all the recommendations.

“What they did, they should be held accountable for it,” she said.

Grace said she and her son are traumatized from their experience.

“Kindergarten was something that we looked forward to. The whole family was happy. I did shopping. They were dancing. We took pictures. [The school board] distorted [this] whole vision for my son,” she said.

The civil suit suggests the child is facing a slew of psychological injuries, including emotional trauma, humiliation, insomnia, mistrust of authority figures, disassociation and inability to enjoy life or engage in normal human interactions. It also claims Grace is suffering physically, mentally and financially

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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