Mental Health in the Legal Profession

A blue digital illustration of two ambiguous books. One is open and laying on a pillow the other closed.

by Naomi Sayers

This piece was first written when Naomi was an articling student and under a good character investigation by the Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) as a result of her self-disclosures to the LSO. The LSO does not investigate all lawyer-licensee candidates. During that time, Naomi felt isolated and alienated from the legal profession given her experiences. To date, she stills feel isolated and alienated given the conversations around self-care and mental health fail to interrogate the ways in which colonialism and all of its misogyny and racism (and other isms) impact Indigenous law students to date. Naomi kept this piece in its original format, but she is now a lawyer. She still believes that LSO still has a lot of work to do in order to truly practice inclusivity. This represents Naomi’s views only and is not legal advice.

Self-care. It is one of those terms that seems to have been taken up by everyone and anyone. Sometimes it is used by people, organizations and institutions in an unintended way. One such way includes avoiding responsibility of systemic and institutional neglect over many years, decades even.

At the time I first drafted this piece, I was in Ontario’s lawyer licensing process. This means that I have graduated law school, applied to become a lawyer in Ontario, passed the lawyer licensing examinations, or as some of my friends have done, deferred the lawyer licensing examinations until after their articles. Completing your articles is the process of learning through doing. In laymen terms, it is like a co-op placement.

Throughout law school, I struggled. I struggled in the sense that I felt alienated and isolated from the discussions that were taking place in the classroom. This is not to say, however, that I did not do well. I felt alienated and isolated from the structure of law school. I did not see or hear about similar experiences that I went through within the classrooms. In one experience, where I enrolled in a course dedicated to social justice advocacy, I thought I would excel. I heard about how you could write an op-ed (an opinion piece that is either solicited by the editor of a major media outlet or that is pitched to a major media outlet by an individual who is not a regular contributor) or, if I recall correctly, how you could learn how to make submissions to parliamentary committees. In any event, it was a class where I already had done all the things in my advocacy work seeking to decriminalize sex work. It was also work that I continued to do throughout law school. The unique thing about this disclosure is in the fact that I went to a law school where many professors supported the complete abolition of prostitution all in an effort to save women like me, poor little indigenous women. But, I didn’t and I, most certainly, don’t need saving.

When I was articling, I was living in Toronto, completing my articles on Bay Street (almost every little middle-class white boy’s wet dream, chasing after his daddy’s footsteps) in a space that prioritizes health care, especially mental health care. However, for the profession as a whole, this does not always mean that they prioritize health care, despite saying otherwise.

When I was in law school, I kept hearing or seeing these self-care narratives literally everywhere. What was missing from these messages was the trauma-informed approach where self-care originates. For example, trauma-informed approaches acknowledge that each individual responds to their own experiences, including traumatic experiences, in unique ways. This means that sometimes your friend may prefer to be alone after expending their energy in negotiating a difficult conversation or another friend may require immediate support in the way of bonding over your choice of substance to alleviate the anxiety from a traumatic experience (Note: I am not encouraging different kinds of substance use; rather, it is about supporting an individual’s choice). Now that I am in the articling process, I see these same messages, “Practice self-care”. What is missing from these conversations, again, is the trauma-informed approach. Yet, this begs the question, can a profession support individuals from a trauma-informed approach when it has historically excluded (and arguably, presently excludes) individuals who have been regulated and policed out of the legal profession bylaws?

During the 1950s, the laws that prevented Indigenous people from hiring lawyers were repealed. This means that, throughout the time of Canada’s colonization (and continued colonization), entire generations of Indigenous communities were left without legal representation—at a moment in time when colonial Canada was passing laws that infringe on their rights. Yes, the concept of justice and the nature of Indigenous law does not always align with those of Canada’s views or concepts. However, the effects of these laws mean that an entire generation of people were literally erased, silenced and ignored during a critical point in the making and shaping of colonial Canada. This is not unintentional. While this article is not about the colonial context of Canada, it is important to understand parts of this history when talking about trauma-informed approaches to mental health care.

Mental health care and self-care discussions in predominantly white spaces translate to discussions about how a bubble bath can make you feel safe and warm. These conversations do not mean that we have conversations about how institutional racism and everyday microaggressions impact your physical health.

Trauma-informed practice is about embodying a range of principles that centre the needs, experiences and expertise of individuals who have experienced or continued to experience trauma in their lives. Trauma can range from a single occurrence to intergenerational trauma. A trauma-informed practice, ultimately, centers an individual’s control, choice and safety. It means that the individual attends to what will make them safe in that moment, by making the choices they can and in a way that they can.

When it comes to self-care, most institutions that have taken up these narratives inadvertently appropriating these terms in a way that, as I mentioned, avoids responsibility. First, institutions, like law schools or institutions who have a history of excluding racialized or Indigenous folks, that adopt a self-care approach without a trauma-informed approach tend to cause more harm. When I was law school, I reached out to a professor in law school after another professor stated that there were only two kinds of laws in Canada. This idea that there are only two kinds of law in Canada means that Indigenous legal traditions are never acknowledged. This erasure, again, means that Indigenous law students are left arguing their own existence. Then, when you have certain experiences being policed and regulated out of the profession, we have a different kind of conversation happening altogether. The question is no longer how much needs to be done to improve the diversity and inclusion of certain kinds of people. Rather, the question becomes what needs to change at an institutional and systemic level in order to address the barriers created by having honest conversations about institutional and systemic discrimination in the legal profession.

Recently, the regulator for Ontario’s lawyers mandated all lawyers to adopt a statement of principles. The statement of principles is one of many recommendations from the Racialized Licensees Report. This specific recommendation, along with the others named in the report, is meant to address the barriers faced by racialized licensees. However, the Report outlines that Indigenous licensees face “unique experiences” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 8). The Law Society of Ontario (“Law Society”), as the Report states, “has a duty to maintain and advance the cause of justice and the rule of law, to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario and to protect the public interest” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). In order to fulfill this duty, the Law Society must also ensure its policies, practices and programs live up to the values and principles of equality and diversity (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). One such policy and practice, however, includes their good character form.

While I agree with the rationale behind adhering to the good character standard, I question whether the Law Society’s policy and practice of adopting a form requirement across the board for all licensing candidates is truly an equality and diversity practice.

For example, when a licensing candidate applies to the Law Society, this candidate must disclose a range of things, including criminal convictions. However, question one on the good character form asks, whether the candidate has “been found guilty of, or convicted of, any offence under any statute” (Lawyer Licensing Process Policies, Part IV: Good Character). You must answer yes to question one if you have been found guilty or convicted under any statute. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association, p 1). The consequence of this question is that it has a wide reach for almost any person. For Indigenous people, this is troublesome.

Indigenous people who are convicted or found guilty of any offence under any statute (which does not seem to be slowing down at any rate) will have to answer yes to question one as outlined above, including those who have accessed the Gladue sentencing regime. The question, then, is not whether the Law Society is adopting equity and diversity principles in its policies, practices and programs. Rather, the question is whether the Law Society is engaging in systemic and/or institutional discrimination with its blanket form, applied across the board to anyone, especially regarding Indigenous people. Again, my issue is not the rationale behind the good character form; it is the practice of assuming that this form is applied equally in a fair manner. Sadly, the Law Society released a report on a review of its good character practices in early 2019 (Professional Regulation Committee, 2019). The facts for lawyer-licensee candidates from this report are as follows:

  1. Over a six-year period, the Law Society received 14,000+ applications from lawyer candidates with only two hundred candidates self-identifying as Indigenous.
  2. 10% of the non-Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  3. 18% of the self-identified Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  4. The report does not provide numbers for the Indigenous candidates who had their good character issues resolved at an initial step, at an investigation or at a hearing. The report does state that 80-90% candidates of those who did answer a good character question in the affirmative were resolved at the initial step and only 1-2% candidates went to a good character hearing.
  5. Presumably, 10-20% candidates went to a hearing.
  6. Since the number of self-identified Indigenous candidates who answer yes to a good character question is higher by 15-25% (5%-10% estimate based on item 3 above), it is safe to assume that 20-30% of self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing.
  7. Based on the above assumption, it could be assumed that 40-60 self-identified Indigenous candidates out of 200 went to a good character hearing over a six-year period or approximately 10 self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing each year over a six-year period.

With the conversation around the statement of principles taking place in Ontario, I cringe each time I hear or read about another lawyer impacted by racism trying to justify why this mandated recommendation is essential in ending barriers to racialized licensees. I also cringe when people assume that this is a free speech issue. Free speech for whom? It is most certainly not for the racialized or Indigenous licensees now almost being forced to write their stories, trying to convince everyone who doesn’t believe racism exists…. that racism exists!

It was only in the 1950s where laws that excluded Indigenous people from entering law school, practicing law or hiring lawyers were repealed (See Constance Backhouse, “Gender and Race in the Construction of ‘Legal Professionalism’: Historical Perspectives” in Adam Dodek & Alice Woolley, eds, In Search of the Ethical Lawyer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016) 126 at 133). Entire generations of Indigenous people were excluded from entering the profession. That is, people like my grandfathers and grandmothers prohibited from entering the profession—two generations ago. During that time, however, my community was surrounded by several residential schools. It is very unlikely that my ancestors would have even survived long enough, sadly, to enter law school. And, undoubtedly, Indigenous folks continue to be excluded from the profession for a range of other barriers.

But I survived and I am here.

I write this in the context of acknowledging this history of denying indigenous people the illusion of freedom to enter the profession. I also write to highlight the problems with the discussion around the statement of principles, as an alleged diversity and equity initiative.

These kinds of initiatives are a distraction from the issue of racism in the profession. Preventing people from having honest conversations about the real issue—racism—is how institutional and systemic discrimination works. They allow institutions and people to say, “Look at all the hard work we have done!” And, when you critique the initiative, you are the problem such as I have done in very public spaces and have been ostracized by more senior lawyers, including racialized lawyers.

As for the statement of principles, these initiatives are merely check box approaches to the problem. Perhaps, one day, we can all have a healthy conversation about institutional and systemic discrimination without racialized and Indigenous licensees and licensing candidates carrying the burden of retelling their stories.

Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist and lawyer. She tweets under the moniker @kwetoday. Views are her own.

Handling the Unpredictable

a illustration of the left and right brain. the right side is more free flowing and made of swirls and the left side is more rigid with straight lines. the background is blue.

Loss, Grief & Taking Control of Your Emotional State in a Masters Program

By Rose Conlin

I have been working on a Masters degree for the last two years, and it has been a great experience. I say this because I am automatically inclined to love school. The goal/success oriented structure of it, though trying at times, has always provided me with enough stability to go on about my daily life fairly easily. Unfortunately, as many colleagues of mine tend to do in post secondary education, we begin to perceive our education as the only facet of our lives. Performing research for and writing a thesis is a big obligation; however it doesn’t need to be all consuming. Especially when there are so many other facets of life that are uncontrollable and can throw themselves at you chaotically without any warning.

We arrive to a common struggle among Masters students, students; really anyone who is set upon a particular long term task and has difficulties finding balance with the other aspects of their lives. Last year (2018), the first year of my Masters program, was continuously plagued by personal life crises that were completely out of my control, for which I will present a brief and efficient list because that appears to be my best method of communication for this matter (as there is truly no way to accurately portray my feelings for this unfortunate series of events in any form of communication): in the beginning of the year my grandfather (closer akin to my father) passed away; my eldest brother attempted suicide for the first time around that same time, and again, and again, later throughout the year; my horse fractured his leg and I eventually had to make the decision to have him put down, after twelve years of having him in my life; the night before he was put down, I almost died in a car accident. After he was put down, I discovered another brother was attempting suicide and making reckless life choices. Surely you can see that these life events were an immediate distraction from my task of writing a Masters thesis.

And yet throughout this, I continued to try to work, research, and write. I continued to grow more deeply rooted in this systemic disappointment with myself and my inability to produce good work. I was so obsessed with grinding away at academic success that when each of these events took place, the levels of depression, anxiety, and this constant dread for terrible news, death, and dismay grew and grew. Eventually I snapped, after the events of my car accident and my horse’s passing.

There is an excellent way that people have described intense depression and loss: before you lost whatever it was that was dear to you, the world was colourful and vivid… but after loss, you lose any notion of the colour that makes that world so vivid. Your presence is physical, and you are aware of your surroundings but only at a basic level of function; engagement, enjoyment, and energy… they are all gone. Attempting to write a Masters thesis while this snap from life happens is truly a feat that I don’t think anyone could effectively accomplish- at least I know that I could not. I stopped my writing, I stopped my research,  I contacted my advisor and asked for an informal break from schooling to prioritize my mental health.

Unfortunately, even when I did begin working again, which was only a month after my accident, I was not mentally prepared to tackle the task ahead of me. The best way to describe this is that I was still in that discoloured state of mind. Yet the pressure that I perceived was upon me to perform constantly ate away at my confidence, self-esteem, and overall mental state. Because of this, the depression and anxiety became more and more consuming as time went on. Why? Simple- I wasn’t allowing myself to heal. I wasn’t giving myself lenience in the steps that I needed to take to heal. I wasn’t recognizing the validity of my emotions. It is truly incredibly the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to succeed academically.

Fast forward three months later. It was November and I was sick of feeling horrible and worthless about my inability to meet my academic expectations. I began to recognize the cycle that I was a part of – grieving over my losses, attempting to perform while being consumed by that grief, and grieving more over my perceived “inability” to perform effectively – and I broke it. Or at least the part related to school. That is the funny thing about grief; it never goes away, but you do learn how to manage it with time. However, the unhealthy cycle that happens when you are unable to fulfill your own high expectations is something that can be worked with. I began to recognize where my disappointment and depression was stemming from, and addressed it head on. I set a lighter schedule for myself, and more realistic deadlines so that I could ease back into research while addressing my own grief. To start this all on a positive note, I scheduled my tentative research trip to the Netherlands and used that as a great opportunity for a fresh start.

In the last three months since recognizing my cycle with depression and creating a realistic plan to resolve the issues that were in my control, I am proud to say that I have been able to focus once again on my research. Mind you, I often have minor episodes of doubt, insecurity, or ill thoughts towards my productivity. However, I do not allow them to consume me as they did before.Without such high expectations for production, I have found that my work is steadily improving in quality and quantity as time goes on. Being able to regain control over the academic facet of my life after my high expectations doomed me to such crippling depression and anxiety is a feat of strength that I can very easily say I am proud of.

What I learned from this experience is that life has a tendency to throw curve balls from every and any angle, and they will always be unexpected to some extent. I have also learned that in our daily work, goals, hobbies, and passions, we often hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards that we could never possibly succeed in reaching because they are created by us as a means to constantly improve. This perception can be very unhealthy if not kept in check; especially in times when loss, trauma, or tragedy happens and you must now juggle ten pressures instead of one, it is better to recognize your high expectations and inhibit their ability to tamper with your emotions more than life already is. School isn’t everything, don’t let your inability to perform in it while you are grieving or suffering in any way further consume your wellbeing.

Rose Conlin is currently enrolled in an MA in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Guelph. Although her life goal is to become a professor, Rose also enjoys spending her time reading fantasy novels, painting, playing the Legend of Zelda, and having bubble baths.

Social Justice Educators: A Note on Your Authority and Power

An illustration of a desk with books and pencils and a raised fist statue. the chalk board reads "anti-oppression 101 E=mc2 (a+b)"

By: Dr. Darrick Smith

                 Many teachers that pursue a mission of social justice struggle with the question of authority in their classroom. After all, the idea of having Authority over someone can feel largely contradictory to a teacher that seeks to spread a sense of fairness inequality amongst the student population. Many of us recall our first moments as activists against injustice as childhood memories of standing up against an authority figure that was in our eyes mis-using their power. As educators that seek to inspire Young people to follow their hearts in situations in which they are facing a mis-use or abuse of power. Negotiating our role as powerful figures in classroom spaces can feel a bit tricky. Further complicating things is the role that schools have played in the history of oppression and colonialism.

                      For many of us who have studied critical theory and the ills of capitalist institutions, we may understand the role of schools as part of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, or Althusser’s idea of the school replacing the church as the most formidable of ideological state apparatuses. Through a critical lens, we tend to view schools as mechanisms intended to convince the populace to accept the stratified nature of our society and the subjugated position of the working class.

        At least 1 in 3 adolescent students in Canada experience bullying each year1. In the U.S., a national survey showed that 20.2% of students reported being bullied on school property and 15.5% reported being bullied electronically during the 12 months before the survey2. In the U.S. reports have shown that nearly half of students may experience some form of sexual harassment3

As educators, we have come to understand the soul-stripping, culture-destroying capacity of schools through examining critical authors such as bell hooks, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Gloria Ladson Billings, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and many others who examine the destructive nature of schools through the neocolonial manifestations of classical attempts to “civilize” or “improve” the marginalized of our society. At the core of these ideas sits perhaps the most pivotal professional role in the area of human development in a democratic society-The educator. For our purposes as we understand schools as communities in which people can work together to create an environment in which humans can thrive as healthy community members, we’ll extend our idea of the educator past that of the classroom teacher and include administrators, counselors, and supporting staff alike. All of these positions serve as teachers. And as such all of these positions must struggle with the tension of having an interest in developing free and empowered human beings while serving as an authority figure within a historically repressive system that often functions to maintain a stratified social structure. For those of us that pursue social justice, this dynamic weighs heavy on our minds each day as we try and straddle the line between developing free minds and keeping our jobs. But this issue does not need to be one of great


1. Molcho M., Craig W., Due P., Pickett W., Harel-fisch Y., Overpeck, M., and HBSC Bullying Writing Group. Cross-national time trends in bullying behaviour 1994-2006: findings from Europe and North America. International Journal of Public Health. 2009, 54 (S2): 225-234

2.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Understanding school violence: Fact sheet. Atlanta, CA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Hill, C., Kearl, H., & American Association of University Women. (2011). Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School (No. 978-1-8799-2241–9). American Association of University Women.


conflict an inner turmoil. The idea of authority can inspire a different conceptual relationship If we understand authority not as an impetus for control and repression but rather a responsibility to guide, and in doing so, maintain boundaries, sustain a sense of safety, and model community-minded decision-making. 

Social Justice is not a behaviour or a statement, but rather a condition. A condition that many of us seek to establish that constitutes a vaguely described ideal of a fair and humanizing political, economic, and social order. However, our calls for the establishment of such a condition, when clarified, can describe the various “destinations” for our journey, but not the pathways to such ideal conditions. This makes sense given the situational nature of resistance and the myriad of spaces and contexts that we might locate as the foci of our endeavors. But as educators, we don’t have to be vague in our understanding of the pathways to social justice because we have an advantage in the realm of clarifying our situation, space, and context. As opposed to other professionals in this world, we work in spaces specifically designed to influence and shape the human consciousness. We are put in position in which we have the ability to mold the content, processes, physical environment, ambitions, and relational boundaries for human beings. In other words: As educators, we are the caretakers and executors for most potent dynamic in the struggle for social change- learning. Even so, we find ourselves seeking to define the core of our social change work and activism through efforts that exist outside of our schools. This is not exclusively so. In our workplaces we mistakenly view student matriculation rates, graduation rates, and social service projects as our social justice work in schools. Many of us will rightfully include narratives, generative themes, and the exploration of conventionally taboo realities into our curriculum. And while these practices can certainly impact how students understand their world, they do not explicitly challenge students to “be” different as they walk through the world in the now. They do not challenge students to stop bullying one another or humiliating one another in-person or online. Content can shift understanding, but it does not in itself establish or maintain expectations and boundaries as to how one must speak, move, or listen for the purposes of liberation.

When we teach students about the realities of injustice and successes of their communities they can learn valuable lessons about the beauty and pain from which they came while also understanding the expansive possibilities for change. But where and when are they expected to manifest the lessons from this material? Where, when, and how do we challenge them to “act like they know”?

Often times it is easier for us to confuse the behaviours of an authoritarian mindset with the context of authority. As social justice educators, the distinctions between these two must be clear, but more so, a clarity must be established as to both the necessity for the embracing of one’s power as an educator and ethical foundations that frame its use. While, as Paulo Freire warned, it is essential that we do not become oppressors in pursuit of liberation, it is also important that we don’t set our expectations of our students in the areas of effort, behaviour academic performance, and healthy relationships to the low depths of those that profile, stereotype, marginalize, and target them. This balancing act between controlling and guidance can only be achieved if we are clear as to our responsibility as it is connected to a particular vision. Authority without humility and a purpose of community-empowerment becomes corrupt. For so many educators it is the very power of their position that they value and it is disconnected from any larger vision that guides their daily manifestation of their authority.

If we seek to establish a condition of justice in an unjust social order, we are engaging ourselves in a conflict. One cannot enter a conflict with only facts and knowledge. As educators, we could consider these elements as essential tools that our students need for the battles ahead. But the missing link in many of our educational spaces for social justice is an emphasis on the behaviours and attitudes that challenge oppression and provide context for the wielding of such tools.

The authority of the educator allows for them to make decisions and set expectations for students that create boundaries for how the student is expected to “be” in that space- how students are expected to talk and move and be with each other. This represents the core of the school’s culture. Culture is incredibly important because it is the culture of the school that serves as the greatest instructor. As culture is defined as artifacts, language, rituals, and beliefs, it is important to understand that a huge portion of the schooling experience involves exchanges and interactions with people in the building, as well as the landscape of the campus. Who sets the boundaries for how people are treated, who contextualize his meaning for all of these interactions that are occurring as part of the school environment? Who must maintain these ideas around meaning, purpose, human value throughout this school year for the duration of a child’s development? As educators it is our responsibility to develop and help maintain an atmosphere in which students are learning how to value themselves as peers, the adults who serve them, and the exercise of learning for the purposes of personal and communal development.

When you find yourself questioning how you can make more of a dent in our world of poverty, struggle and repression, look to the opportunities you have to guide students in their daily behaviour to manifest the beautiful side of humanity. This cannot be done by passively hoping for change or softening expectations, but through clear communication and the consistent implementation of fair boundaries and support systems. As educators, we must embrace our power for the purposes of humanization. And as we acknowledge that dehumanization not only occurs systemically or in faraway places, but right in front of us in schools, we must stand in our responsibility as guides in our learning spaces in the interest of developing students beyond what they know, but what they do each day- now.


Darrick Smith, ED. D.
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of San Francisco and Co-Director of the School of Education’s Transformative School Leadership (TSL) program. 

Justice in our Schools

Building Safety for Black Youth Living with ADD and ADHD

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

 I recently caught up with Leroi Newbold, a bad ass teacher working in the Toronto District School Board doing amazing work with youth. This interview I did with him focuses on how Black youth living with ADD and ADHA are being impacted by ableism is schools and transformative solutions.

Shabina: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do? 

I’m LeRoi Newbold. I’m a community organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto, a parent, and an educator at the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard in Toronto. On a daily, I teach Grade 1. I’ve taught Special Education and have taught in a “behavioral” classroom in the system. I work with Black kids who are struggling with being educated in a system that is oppressive, and I try to share some tools with them about how to resist in that system, or how to be successful through understanding how that system operates.

I am the co-founder of St. Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, which began as a skill-sharing organization to provide free studio time and photography/silkscreen lessons to people living in of South-West Montreal, and queer/trans *BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour). I am the founder and director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School, which is an arts based program to teach Black Liberation, political history and political resistance to young Black children (4-10 years-old). We especially focus on Black Liberation work done by and to support Black *cis women, queer, and transgender people, poor Black people, Black people in prison, and Black people living at the margins of our communities. We teach kids how to organize, how to use arts to communicate, and how to fight back against police violence and oppression.

I am on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto. So….we support people who want to speak out about police murders of their family members, and police violence. We also try to create space for Black artists making work in Toronto, hold systems accountable for state violence, encourage people to rely on each other for safety instead of police, and support alternatives to traditional schooling for Black kids etc.

 Shabina: What is an IEP and how are Black youth impacted by them?

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan. On paper an IEP is a seven page document that is written to outline how a child is going to get support over the course of a year in the Special Education system here in Ontario. The IEP outlines accommodation, which are things that a child might need to be successful in school like extra time on exams, different exam formats, condensed work etc. In some cases it outlines modifications, which is when a child’s whole curriculum is altered so for example, a child might be enrolled in Grade 4, but according to their IEP, they are working on elements of a Grade 2 curriculum as a point of departure.

On paper an IEP is a collaborative (so written together) by parents, classroom teachers, Special Education teachers, and principles. IEPs are in theory positive because they are personalized and student based. They outline a student’s strengths and needs, and the idea is to use a student’s strengths to address their needs. So for example, an IEP might stipulate that a child is very strong in music and that those strengths should be used to address their need to develop stronger reading skills or skills in mathematics. IEPs are also technically documents that hold teachers accountable to a plan for how to address a student’s needs, who may need support academically or even socially/emotionally.

The problem with IEPs is sometimes they are in fact not collaborative documents. Sometimes they are documents that teachers write and ask parents to sign without even properly explaining what they are. Sometimes they are documents that confuse parents because a child’s report card is reporting on their progress on their IEP instead of progress in the classroom. For example, a parent is seeing A’s on a child’s report card, but not understanding that their child is working below their Grade level. Sometimes IEP’s, are documents that criminalize kids and put families in danger because the IEP states that 911 should be called when a child does a certain behaviour, even though the child is 5 or 6 years- old. Sometimes IEPs are a problem because they lead to an actual lack of accountability. For example, a child may never fail a grade in school, but might remain on an IEP that says they are working at a Kindergraten level while they are enrolled in Grade 2, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 3, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 4. There is a lack of processes of accountability for teachers to ensure that the plan written in the IEP is met and that the child learns the things the IEP says they’re going to learn.

Shabina: Can you talk about some of the barriers set up for Black youth living with ADD, ADHA and other ‘behavioural disorders’ in the public school system?

One barrier is that ADD and ADHA are often treated as behavioural disorders. ADD/ADHA are not behavioural disorders. ADD and ADHD affect the executive functions of the brain. So in an educational setting, a child might need support directing their attention to a particular task or instruction. What a child does not need is escalating punitive measures related to the struggle they have with focus or attention, and therefore their tendency to get up and wander around or “distract” other kids. Punishing a child for the executive functions of their brain is very violent and very ableist.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that Black children are often read as defiant in a way that is not appropriate. In “Educating Other People’s Children” Lisa Delpit writes about the way white teachers tend to give verbal directives. She writes about how white teachers tend to give verbal directives in a way that is very passive aggressive (Ex: would you like to read a book? Ex: Is that where we put the scissors?). For Black children whose parents speak to them in very direct ways in their up-bringing, passive aggressive ways of speaking and interacting can be very confusing. Black children will often take what is being said at face value, and respond by saying, “No, I don’t want to read a book.” And then the child will be read and labeled as defiant even though they are just being honest. Passive aggressive verbal directives can be an even bigger problem for children who have communication based learning disabilities or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) because passive aggressive communication can be hard or impossible to understand.

Another issue for many Black communities and families is that education has been used as an instrument of colonization. So because of this, parents and families don’t trust the education system here even though education is a priority for Black families. There is also a breadth of research to suggest that Black communities have diminished trust in the health care system because of racism, mistreatment by physicians and having received substandard health care. Because of this, diagnoses for Black children with disabilities like ASD or ADHD might happen later in life or not at all. It is very hard for parents to effectively collaborate with teachers around things like IEPs when there is little or no trust there.

Shabina: How do you see the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black youth with disabilities?

There has been a shift for people from talking about the school-to-prison pipeline to actually talking about schools as carceral (jail like) spaces. The case of a 6 year-old Black girl who was recently handcuffed at school by police in Mississauga clearly demonstrates how schools can act as carceral spaces for Black kids (especially Black kids with disabilities). A 6 year-old was handcuffed by police at her school because she was having an outburst, and potentially punched her principal. The child was 6 years-old, so weighed less than 50 pounds. For an adult principal (who is an authority figure within a school), being punched by someone who weighs less than 50 pounds and is 6 years-old might be surprising, but it does not present a threat to safety. When police arrived on scene the child was banging her head against her desk, which suggested that she was in emotional distress. It is likely that the child needed support processing her emotions, and that maybe she needed attention (maybe a hug) from an someone who cared about her and whom she trusted. The fact that the child had apparently had many incidents such as this, suggested that she may have needed ongoing social/emotional support. Instead, the police were called. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the police then handcuffed the child by her wrists, as well as by her ankles. This was an act of excessive and humiliating violence, and one that will be potentially traumatic for a very young child. What leads an adult principal (trained to support children) to seek the assistance of a police officer (whose job is address crime) in calming down a 6 year-old child is anti-Black racism.

In 2008, Toronto Police Services implemented something called the SRO (School Resource Officer) program. The SRO Program is part of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy). TAVIS is a program that was implemented to curb gun violence by increasing police presence in specifically designated areas of Toronto, which included many Black neighbourhoods. The SRO program specifically placed police officers in a number of schools across Toronto with the goal of improving relationships between youth and police. By 2011, about fifty schools had School Resource officers, including a large number of schools in majority Black neighbourhoods, and including not only high schools but elementary schools (serving children from 3 and a half to 12 years-old). This means that Black children increasingly have police present in their schools, and police brought in to assist with conduct issues and conflicts between students and between students and teachers. This affects Black children in many ways.

This affects Black children and youth psychologically. They may wonder why it is a necessary to have a police officer present in their place of learning to survey them constantly. It affects Black children in terms of increased violent incidents with police. We remember the case of Spring Valley High School where a police dragged a teenage Black girl out of her desk and threw her against a wall. It affects Black children with disabilities because Black students with behavioural “exceptionalities”/disabilities are often the ones being suspended and going through other punitive processes at school. It affects Black children with disabilities because they are then at an increased risk being referred to Ontario Youth Corrections due to their behaviour at school. It affect Black children because youth are one of the fastest growing prison population in Ontario, and so are Black women.

 Shabina: Can you talk about some transformative models used to implement disability justice within a classroom to keep Black youth in particular safe, nurtured and humanized?

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a school called the Oakland Community School, and the school did not use punitive measures such as detention, suspensions, expulsions, or even timeouts. Instead they had something called the Youth Justice League. Through the Youth Justice league, youth (in the presence of an adult) would be responsible for addressing conduct issues that occurred in the classroom. For example, a young child who did not do their homework would go to the Youth Justice League for what they called “course correction”. The youth would ask the children why for example, they didn’t do their homework. The child would then outline the reason why they didn’t do their homework. The youth justice league would suggest ways for the child to correct the issue. They would ask the child what support they needed in making the correction. This is an example a transformative justice model because the Oakland Community School transformed the circumstances in which education took place. It transformed dynamics of power so that Black and Latinx communities decided what kind of education was appropriate for their children. It transformed dynamics of power in that it gave opportunities to youth to experience the same power as teachers (decide on course content, co-teach lessons etc). In an event that a conduct issue arose it gave power to children in terms of being accountable to each other rather than an authority figure. They were given a chance to talk about their level of engagement in what they were learning, and being given support to address their own behaviour. This is crucial for children with disabilities because punishment is not appropriate when your what is seen as inappropriate behaviour might happen because of a cognitive disorder or something else beyond your control. Disabilities justice means that transforming the spaces that we are part of to be accessible and sustainable and to prioritize people with disabilities. People with disabilities cannot be honoured within an educational institution that corrects atypical behaviour through punishment, isolation, violence, or humiliation.

Shabina: How can teachers stand in solidarity with Black youth living with ADD and ADHD?

1.Teachers working within the system should recognize ourselves as an arm of the state, and therefore an arm of state violence. We must, wherever possible, intervene in the routine intervention into and harassment of the Black family by police and Childrens Aid Society.

2.Nerotypical people and neurotypical adults must take leadership from people with disabilities in how to transform our classrooms and educational spaces into spaces that are accessible.

3.Educators must respect, love, and share power with Black families, students, and communities

Leroi Newbold
Leroi Newbold is a parent, community organizer, and educator and curriculum designer.  Leroi is inaugural staff and Grade 1 teacher at Canada’s first public Africentric School.  He organizes on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto and is the director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.