STRAIT AREA: The operators of schools located inside and outside local Mi’kmaw communities are offering a variety of approaches and opinions, in the wake of recent figures that suggest a high suspension rate for aboriginal students attending classes within the Strait regional school board (SRSB) system.

Data provided by the SRSB to a provincial media organization indicates that aboriginal students made up five per cent of the SRSB student body in the 2015-16 academic year but accounted for 24.8 per cent of the board’s 605 out-of-school suspensions during the same time period. Similarly, students of indigenous descent made up six per cent of the SRSB student population in 2014-15 but accounted for 20.3 per cent of the 458 suspensions during that academic year.

“We were aware of this increase earlier on, and we took a number of steps and implemented a number of measures to support students, staff and schools, and to help support this issue that we’re working through,” said Paul Landry, the SRSB’s director of programs and student services.

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“We’re also trying to hire more teachers of aboriginal descent, and we’re also conducting an early hire for a teacher of aboriginal descent as well.”

Landry also confirmed that the SRSB has received an invitation from one of its three Mi’kmaw communities to work with local education officials on-site to develop solutions to the issue.

Conversely, according to the principal of Potlotek First Nation’s Allan Lafford High School, Roland McCarthy, only one suspension has emerged during his four-year tenure in this position. However, he acknowledged that the aboriginal student suspension rate has arisen as an issue in previous years, and listed it as a factor behind the construction of the new school on the Richmond County Mi’kmaw reserve seven years ago.

“Back then, similar to now, there were a disproportionate number of youth from Potlotek who were being suspended and expelled from Richmond Academy and possibly EREC [East Richmond Education Centre],” McCarthy recalled.

“So that was the driving force for this school to be created, in addition to having a more culturally-integrated curriculum. They wanted to do both things – address the suspensions and expulsions while providing students with an educational program that’s more reflective of their identity as indigenous people.”

To that end, both McCarthy and Landry are stressing the need for aboriginal students to see their culture and experiences reflected in the faces that guide them through their formative years. Both men also agreed that a suspension is only one route that a school administrator can take to punish a student for a perceived wrong, stating that a student’s best chance to grow and learn comes in the classroom.

“We try to take a more restorative approach for dealing with those kids and situations, but I think our measurement of what merits a suspension from school may be drastically different from what students may experience within the provincial school system,” McCarthy suggested.

“I’ve read files where students were suspended from school for saying the F-word. Does that really merit a two-or-three-day vacation? In my opinion, absolutely not – it’s basically giving students time off for school that can basically be addressed in other ways.”

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Adam Cooke has been a staff writer and columnist for The Reporter since 1999. A native of L’Ardoise, Adam lives in Port Hawkesbury with his wife Cathy.