Documented incidents of racial discrimination in Nova Scotia schools increased 16.2 per cent over the last two years, from 396 in 2015-16 to 460 in 2016-17, according to a CBC News analysis.
The numbers, which are collected annually by Nova Scotia school boards, have never been made public.
"For these numbers to be increasing in 2016, 17, 18 … it's totally unacceptable," said Michael Fells, the African-Nova Scotian representative for the Tri-County Regional School Board. "It speaks to a system that is failing."
Not taken seriously
Nova Scotia school boards have been logging incidents of discrimination since the 2014-15 school year. Schools handle incidents of discrimination under the provincial school code of conduct policy and are required to document, track and respond to them.
Fells said the figures reflect the frustrations he's heard from African-Nova Scotian parents and students in his district.
"Their greater frustration is that people in places of authority — school teachers and administrators and others — aren't taking them seriously [and] are somewhat dismissive," he said.
He believes students "are further victimized" as a result. "First, it's happening to them. And two, they are not being encouraged to speak truth to power," he said.
Teachers using conciliatory approach
Fells said school board policy treats racial slurs as acts of violence, and that repeated incidents should result in suspensions. But he said teachers often take a conciliatory approach.
"What a lot of African-Nova Scotian learners are telling me when this happens to them, is sometimes the teachers just want to talk like, 'Well the person didn't really mean it,' or, 'They don't understand the impact that their words are having,'" he said.
"How long do they have be victimized or abused before someone says, 'Hey, wait a minute.' … Whether they understand or not, there has to be a consequence to wrong behaviour."
Fells also doubts the 59 incidents recorded over two years in the Tri-County Regional School Board reflect the full picture.
"It's hard for me to believe that that reflects what's taking place. I think the numbers, if adequately documented, would be significantly higher," he said.
Wider attitudes in N.S.?
The Mi'kmaw representative on the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board said he believes the figures reflect attitudes in wider Nova Scotian society.
"I don't think they are surprising," said Darren Googoo, who is also chair of the Council on Mi'kmaq Education.
"We would be naive to think that, given the level of systemic racism and discrimination in this province, that our schools would be exempt from it somehow magically," he said.
Racial discrimination in schools can have severe academic consequences, Googoo said.
"It sometimes creates individual crises with students where they disengage from the school system. They end up being the students who don't succeed, they don't have the ability to continue to go forward with their education," he said.
Googoo hopes having the numbers helps quantify a problem school boards have been dealing with anecdotally.
"We're collecting the data so we can better understand the scope of the problem, but more importantly be able to use that information to find solutions moving forward," he said.
"Our goal or our challenge as a school board and an education system is to make sure they have a minimal impact on our Mi'kmaq students in the province of Nova Scotia right now," he said.