Westmount students hold walkout, call for more support for students who face discrimination

Students at Westmount Secondary School walked out of class on Wednesday to protest what they say is a lack of action from school staff in addressing discrimination. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Students at a high school on the Hamilton Mountain staged a walkout to protest what they say is a lack of action from school administration in addressing homophobia and discrimination.

More than a hundred students lined the sidewalk outside of Westmount Secondary School Wednesday morning, chanting and waving Pride flags.

Grade 12 student Liana DeSousa told Global News the walkout was sparked by an incident involving a group chat where some students allegedly made homophobic, misogynist and ableist remarks about other students.

“It was our football team’s chats which were leaked by someone who felt that it was disgusting, what they were saying,” they said.

“The students who made the comments were suspended for three days, as well as the people who actually spoke out against them. So we felt that was inappropriate.”

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DeSousa said this isn’t the first time that students who have been targeted through discriminatory remarks have had their experiences dismissed by staff.

“Mainly, it’s that students don’t feel safe in our school. They don’t feel safe talking to administration, they don’t feel safe talking to our teachers because of these repeated instances of students trying to come forward about the things they experience in the school which are not right, and being silenced.”

Read more: Hamilton Catholic school board votes in favour of flying Pride flag in June for first time ever

In a statement emailed to Global News, Westmount’s superintendent of student achievement said everyone has the right to feel safe, accepted and included and that staff believe students when they share their experiences. Colin Pinkney said students also have a right to advocate for a more inclusive culture.

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“While we are unable to discuss the specific situation that initiated this student demonstration, we acknowledge a Safe Schools response was applied to address individual behaviour,” Pinkney wrote.

“We recognize that aside from the measures currently in place, we need to consider the broader impact on school culture when students feel unsafe. An act of injustice to one student is an act of injustice against us all in a school and the community.”

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Pinkney also wrote that all staff have an obligation to stop acts of hate, bias and discrimination when they witness it or become aware of it, including homophobic and transphobic slurs.

Westmount’s principal has also sent a letter to families about the walkout, saying the action wasn’t endorsed by the school or the board but that the administration recognizes students’ right to demonstrate.

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“As a school community, we acknowledge that some students do not feel included,” wrote principal Geeta Malhotra.

“On behalf of the school and the Administration team, we extend our apologies for any harm caused. We continue to be committed to improving our school culture.”

Read more: Survey of LGBTQ2 community calls on Hamilton police to acknowledge harm, increase accountability

DeSousa said they got in touch with a student trustee, who was able to help them set up a meeting with the superintendent that is scheduled to be held on Thursday.

“So the intention of [the walkout] was really to try and get out here and … make them understand what’s happening here and to be heard, really, especially before we go into this meeting.”

They added that it was great to see how many people took part in the walkout and how many students were willing to advocate for one another.

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“We really need the people out here to stand up for those who can’t, for those who have been silenced by the school and to show them, really, at the end of the day.”

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