| Racially tinged situation ’really out of control‘ |
By SARAH ELIZABETH BROWN
Thursday, May 14, 2009
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The Hammarskjold student, who said a school official notified him last Wednesday that he is suspended until next week, said an unrelated scrap between two Hammarskjold students occurred last Wednesday. As onlookers drifted away afterward, the teen said, he and an aboriginal student exchanged comments, calling each other “white boy” and “brown.”
The teen, who said he hasn‘t attended school since last Thursday out of concern for his safety and who asked not to be named, said he apologized to the other boy and thought that was the end of it.
But since then, he said, the situation has only gotten worse with daily fights and is “really out of control.”
“It needs to stop, all the stuff that‘s happening,” he said.
The teen said he‘s aware of “a couple of” other students who have also been suspended over the matter.
The Chronicle-Journal was unable to confirm the suspensions with the Lakehead District School Board. The board has a policy that it can discipline students for events that take place off school property but which impact the school climate.
Thunder Bay Police spokesman Chris Adams said investigators have spoken with the four main combatants of a subsequent pre-arranged fight that occurred last Thursday evening near Forest Park School, and that up to 12 teens could have been involved. The main players ranged in age from 15 to 18.
Anywhere from 20 to 40 young people were onlookers, he said.
It was after that event, which the Hammarskjold teen said he got caught up in, that the conflict migrated to the Internet. About 15 posts on a YouTube chat group involved “racially inappropriate” comments made back and forth between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, said Adams. Seven were posted by Thunder Bay teens, while the rest came from elsewhere in Canada and the U.S.
Some of the comments involve threats to specific individuals, which a parent saw and reported to police. That resulted in officers in all three north-side high schools on Tuesday.
Terry Waboose, Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said he‘s concerned over what he calls a growing prevalence of racism in the city.
“The Thunder Bay community has a growing First Nations population and it is time that we come together to address issues of racism, but we can‘t do that if people insist on labelling people as aboriginal or non-aboriginal,” Waboose said in a news release. “This creates an us-vs.-them mentality that can only exacerbate the problems.”
Though encouraged that police and the school board are treating the incident seriously, Waboose suggested the community needs to use this case as a springboard to launch a collaborative approach to the problem.
At a youth conference in early April attended by 150 people, mostly aboriginal, the top issue raised was racism, said Moffat Makuto, volunteer adviser for the Regional Multicultural Youth Council.
“We were really surprised at that,” he said.
And when the youth group conducted an anti-racism workshop with student leaders at Lakehead Public Schools three weeks later, he was again surprised to hear stories from the young leaders about how casually young people make racist remarks or jokes.
The youth council is working on a process that would allow students to register complaints about racism with their schools. The process would allow students to include how they think the issue should be resolved, Makuto said.
“Because unless you really engage them and they are satisfied with the process, that‘s when things get out of hand and people to try to settle their own scores wherever they can do it.”
It was the online comments and threats that continued after the Thursday event – there for all to see – that escalated a situation until it involved far more people, Adams said.
Police and school officials have said the sheer speed of information sharing on social networking websites is fuelling the escalation.
“This is the problem – a lot of these fights get posted on YouTube. There seems to be almost a subculture in teens interested in this kind of entertainment,” said Adams. “In some cases they‘re consensual (fights). They know each other, they‘re just doing it for the sake of being in a video.”
Police don‘t think last Thursday‘s incident was filmed and posted online, but they do believe an unrelated scrap between two boys aged 14 and 15 that officers at Hammarskjold broke up at the lunch hour was staged for that purpose. The boys were charged with causing a disturbance by fighting.