‘It’s never appropriate’: Calgary Catholic School District apologizes for principal using N-word

The Calgary Catholic School District is apologizing days after a recording surfaced of the principal at St. Michael School using the N-word in discussion with a group of Black students. 

On Wednesday, CBC News reported that multiple students from St. Michael had been suspended after sharing the recording online.

“So how come it’s OK for you to say [the N-word]?” principal Lianne Anderson asked a group of Black students, questioning their use of the word.

Four students were suspended by the school for recording the principal without her knowledge and sharing it online — something the school board said violates the student code of conduct.

School district apologizes

Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas is now apologizing on behalf of the district.

“I want to share our deepest, deepest apology. It’s never appropriate to share a word like that, no matter the context,” he said. “I stand behind the principal as a very caring, compassionate individual. I think, as human beings, we all make mistakes, and to quote what the principal told me this morning, ‘Dr. Szumlas, I will never say that word again.'”

Former St. Michael student Allih Pineda — who is now in Grade 11 at Saint Mary’s — has started a petition that already has more than 1,000 signatures, demanding mandatory anti-racism training for the school district’s faculty and administration.

“If this is allowed to happen in our school, across the district I’d imagine that students face similar situations,” he said. 

Szumlas said the district agrees.

“It’s an opportunity to grow and to learn from it and to improve,” he said.

Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas has apologized on behalf of the district and says the use of the word is never appropriate in any context. (CBC)

Szumlas said the school district recently formed a racial justice team shortly after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May during an encounter with Minneapolis police.

In a statement, the press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the principal’s language was not condoned by Alberta Education, regardless of the intention.

“We know that the school authority is reflecting on what happened and expect that they will take steps to listen and work to ensure safe, welcoming and caring learning environments for all of their students and staff,” Colin Aitchison said.

Mandatory sensitivity training in the works

“We are working on developing a mandatory course that all of our staff will go through to learn more about racial justice and even situations like this and how to respond and things to say and things not to say,” Szumlas said. 

“Not only the individuals that were directly impacted at the school, but all of society can learn that [in] saying a word such as that, no one could ever understand the emotion and the harm that a word like that can bring to the emotions of an individual who is hearing it.”

Pineda said that during his own time at St. Michael, he saw a similar situation to this one unfold when he was in Grade 6, and he doesn’t want more students to go through it again. 

“I had a math teacher just openly say the N-word in class a well. I just remember we were in class and talking about words you should not say,” he said.

We are working on developing a mandatory course that all of our staff will go through to learn more about racial justice.– Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas

“He easily could have just said N-word as a replacement and we would all understand, because as an educator, you can tell your students, ‘don’t use the F-word,’ and you don’t have to use the F-word in that circumstance for them to know it’s wrong.”

The now 16-year-old said an older student that was present for the conversation then spoke to the teacher the next day about why it wasn’t right for the teacher to say the word.

Petition demands

Pineda’s petition has other demands as well, one of which is to clarify what percentage of the school district’s executive leadership and full-time faculty members are BIPOC, and what is planned to address the shortcomings.

“Do they actually have any Black, Indigenous, people of colour on their on faculty team, and is the executive leadership diverse? I just want to know, who is in charge?” he said. “The students just like aren’t reflected in the staff, is what I’m getting at.”

Allih Pineda is a Grade 11 student. He has started a petition demanding mandatory anti-racism classes for all staff in the Calgary Catholic School District. (Contributes)

Szumlas said this is also something Calgary Catholic School District is working on.

“We are definitely looking at that, like I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, systemic racism does exist and part of it is in our composition of our leadership and administration,” he said. 

“But you also have to to note, too, that we hire the best candidates. And so we’re going to continue to hire our best candidates, and I encourage Black, Indigenous, multi-race people of colour to apply for positions and to come work for the Calgary Catholic School District.”

Pineda said he’d also like to see an effective initiative created where student can safely report racism on campuses and be provided with adequate protection.

“Some students may not feel comfortable with their principals at this point,” he said.

Szumlas said he loves that idea.

“I think is a great idea, one that we will definitely consider as we go forward,” he said. “I think sharing these stories is the first step to healing and the first step to improving.”

Szumlas said that when it comes to the suspensions, there is still more to the story than what has been reported, but because of confidentiality he isn’t free to share everything.

“These are private, personal, confidential matters that reside with youth and students and their families that I unfortunately can’t get into all of those details with you,” he said.

“But I can share with you that I had a very favourable meeting with one of the students impacted in this event, and it’s a learning opportunity. We’re always open to improvement, and we will definitely take a step back and have a look at the rules that currently exist in our school district.”

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