Hamilton Students for Justice, formerly known as HWDSB Kids Need Help, was founded by a group of now-former Westdale Secondary School students in November 2017. Our original framework was modelled after YRDSB Kids Need Help and their work to challenge and disrupt anti-Black racism in the York Region District School Board. We are working to disrupt all forms of systemic violence, including but not limited to anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, ableism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia.
In November of 2017, HS4J launched in response to an incident of police violence, anti-Black racism, and ableism at Westdale Secondary School wherein a Black Muslim autistic student was forcibly handcuffed and removed from her school by the Hamilton police. We served as an advocating body for the family, providing them with a pro bono lawyer and consistent support in addressing this violence at the school board level.
After this incident, we hosted multiple town halls to hear directly from the community on the ways ableism and police violence were disproportionately affecting racialized, Black, and disabled students. Recommendations were collected and presented to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB).
In our efforts, we have sought to support students by ensuring that this work is directly informed through an anti-racist, anti-oppression pedagogical lens. Our data collections have provided empirical evidence of discrimination in schools; however, we recognize that marginalized students need to be believed regardless of whether data is available in the way institutions understand it. Recommendations listed in our reports and outlined in consultations with the HWDSB resulted in the school board committing to an Equity Action Plan in 2019.
Much of the equity-related work that the HWDSB is currently partaking in has been and continues to be informed by marginalized students’ ongoing advocacy. This work is laborious, emotional, and tiresome; it is the reality of many student organizers across the province.
During the 2018 municipal election, we met and consulted with multiple HWDSB school trustee candidates and chose to endorse specific candidates who upheld a similar vision of equity in schools. We endorsed both current HWDSB Trustee Maria Felix Miller and former HWDSB Trustee candidate Sukhi Dhillon.
In 2019, we spent the year working with student organizers at Westdale Secondary School. For the safety of students involved, much of this work will remain undisclosed.
In February of 2020, HS4J members and students at HWDSB schools gave a press conference to media outlets in Hamilton about a report entitled “A Consultation Report on Racism, Islamophobia, and Discrimination in Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) Schools.” This report detailed experiences of overt and covert racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination faced by students in HWDSB schools. At the press conference, Black and racialized students shared their lived experiences of racism in HWDSB schools and gave several recommendations to the HWDSB as outlined in the report. One of the press conference’s impacts was the suspension of the Black Youth Mentorship Program (BYMP) at Bernie Custis Secondary School (BCSS) by the HWDSB. With support from HS4J, Black students at BCSS organized a walkout in protest of the cancellation. The Black Youth Mentorship Program is the only program in the HWDSB that teaches Black youth the skills needed to navigate a society built on racist colonial views and standards. The program also teaches youth how to deal with the micro-aggressions they face on a day-to-day basis. The protest resulted in the continuation of the BYMP in BCSS, and the work of the youth inspired students across the HWDSB to consider creating similar groups. This is an example of how, when needed, a disruption of peace can bring compromise and empowerment.
After the press conference and walkout, the NDP Black Caucus and leader of the official opposition to Ontario’s provincial government asked to meet with us on February 19th, 2020. In conversation with the Black Caucus (MPPs Laura Mae Lindo, Jill Andrew, Faisal Hassan, and Rima Berns-McGown) as well as Hamilton Centre and Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas MPPs (Andrea Horwath and Sandy Shaw), we demanded that the government remove police from all Ontario schools, review anti-racism and discrimination policies across the province, and review the HWDSB’s anti-racism measures and Equity Action Plan. The Black Caucus offered political support to student organizers, offered to present reports written by us on the floor, offered their presence at events that we might host in the future, offered to pay for Black and racialized student organizers to meet and form a province-wide coalition, and otherwise invited us back to Queen’s Park for further meetings.
In June 2020, HS4J successfully pushed for the complete termination of the Police Liaison Program from HWDSB schools.
We gathered and shared anonymous testimonials from students about experiences with policing in their places of learning. We then mobilized the city to participate in phone zaps and email blasts contacting their ward representatives at the school board to demand, specifically, the program’s termination (rather than the motion to suspend then-currently on the floor).
2019-2020 Student Trustee and HS4J member Ahona Mehdi shared a detailed report with HWDSB school trustees urging them to terminate, including all collected anonymous testimonials (from students, staff, parents, and others) and Hamilton author Lawrence Hill’s letter of support.
Finally, during the HWDSB’s board meeting on June 22nd, HS4J hosted a sit-in on Main Street in front of Hamilton City Hall. While adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines, we shared poems and stories relating to the trauma of policing, chanted, laughed, and danced in the pouring rain. In the end, at 11pm that night, we won.
To be clear: none of HWDSB’s school trustees put forward the motion to terminate the Police Liaison Program. During their June 8th board meeting, trustees voted 6-5 against even suspending this program while it was under review. In direct contrast, the Black Youth Mentorship Program was immediately suspended without a trustee vote when the HWDSB put it under review a few months prior, which we see as an intentional act to silence Black youth. Within the span of just a couple of weeks, after receiving hundreds of emails and calls from concerned Hamiltonians, the Trustee Board voted to terminate the Police Liaison Program.
The motion to terminate was put forward by the Human Rights and Equity advisory committee — a committee of students, parents, and community members who unanimously voted in support of it — and pushed for at the board level by Ahona Mehdi. The HRE committee’s existence was a direct result of our advocacy in the years prior, as there were previously no institutional bodies that served to advocate for students. Past and present students have been fighting to remove this program for years; the win was by community and for community.
The fight to keep police out of Hamilton schools continues despite the HWDSB Police Liaison Program’s termination. We are working to ensure that this program remains terminated in the HWDSB and that there are no loopholes that can allow for police presence in schools. Our work also continues in ensuring that all schools in Hamilton are police-free.
Within our capacity, we will publicize future meetings and refrain from meeting privately with educational institutions. Hamilton Students for Justice is relentless in our vision for police-free and discrimination-free schools. We refuse to cater to governing bodies’ inadequate measures designed to appease rather than resolve issues at their roots.