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York school board stands down, reinstates bullied student

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

A 15-year-old black belt who was suspended for breaking the nose of a classmate who racially abused him will return to school Tuesday after a sudden change of heart at the York Region board.

The reversal represents a dramatic victory for the Asian student, who was suspended a maximum 20 days last week. He had received a letter from the school board – later retracted – that said his principal recommended he be expelled from all schools in the region.

The 15-year-old will return to Keswick High School this morning with the suspension removed from his academic record and his upcoming expulsion hearing cancelled, the boy's father said Monday.

The turnabout began Monday when the student and his parents were invited to a hastily convened reconciliation session with his antagonist and that boy's parents. At that meeting, the white student apologized for directing a racial slur at the 15-year-old and for punching him in the mouth. The 15-year-old apologized for breaking his classmate's nose.

“He knew he was wrong so I was really glad to hear that,” the Korean-born student said. “I felt bad for breaking his nose so I apologized to him after that.”

The fight broke out April 21 during a gym class game of speedball. The white student called the 15-year-old a “fucking Chinese,” which led to pushing and shoving. After being struck in the mouth, the 15-year-old, a black belt in tae kwon do, struck back with his weaker left hand, which his father, a martial arts master, had taught him was a measure of last resort. Afterward, only the 15-year-old was charged by police. His fellow students, outraged by what they saw as injustice, walked out of school en masse last Monday to protest.

The parents of the student who uttered the racial slur also apologized to the Korean family.

“They said, ‘Sorry, what my son did is wrong. I'm very upset and disappointed about my son saying that,' “ the 15-year-old's father said. He added that the boy seemed repentant. He entered the room unable to make eye contact and stared at the floor until he offered his apology.

“He said, ‘I don't know why I said that.' His father said he was probably angry and that's why he couldn't control himself. That's why he made the racial comments.”

Lawyer Paul Koven, who represents the Korean family, said he is extremely pleased with the outcome.

“I credit the student body and the attention of the media for giving this story the spotlight it deserved,” he said. “This is a story presented to the public as an affront to common sense. A boy was racially taunted in school, a boy was attacked without provocation and did no more than defend himself.”

The boy still faces a charge of assault causing bodily harm even though his opponent's parents have twice called York Regional Police asking that the charges be dropped. Mr. Koven said once charges have been laid, however, it's up to the Crown to determine whether to proceed or not, which probably won't be decided until a first court appearance on May 13.

Mr. Koven said this case raises a number of questions that still need to be answered, beginning with why the Korean-born student was suspended in the first place, why he was given the maximum 20 days, and why the board felt it had to reverse itself. He said the Education Act states that a principal should consider whether harassment because of race or ethnic origin may be a mitigating factor in the incident leading to suspension.

He also would like to know why the school board sent a letter saying it would recommend the 15-year-old be expelled, only to say three days later that the letter was sent in error.

Ross Virgo, spokesman for the York school board, said the board would try to ensure that future investigations go more smoothly, and that “school leaders have the benefit of all the information that's available to them from the outset.”

He added: “The school recognizes that this whole situation could have benefited from a more thorough investigation from the outset and it deeply regrets the premature sending of that expulsion letter.”

The 15-year-old's parents said the school also acknowledged their request that more anti-racism material be included in its curriculum.

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