Teen beaten at Ontario school endured racial taunts for months: Family
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A black teen beaten as fellow students watched and filmed it on their smartphones has been the target of bullying and racial slurs for months — ever since the family moved to the area last fall, says the boy’s father.
The 17-year-old still attends Sutton District High School in York Region, and his family is upset the alleged attackers continue to as well, and that the teens are even in some of the same classes.
“Can you imagine? He is in the same class with these kids,” said the teen’s father, Charles Makuto. “The superintendent’s response was that there’s only one high school in town.
“There is one in Keswick, or they could have made arrangements where the kids are in separate classes. They haven’t done that.”
Four youths — aged 14, 15, and 16 — and one 18-year-old whom police will not name, have been charged with assault in the April incident in which students yelled the N-word and offensive comments from the sidelines as PJ Makuto was punched and kicked. Video of the attack was shared on social media.
All of the accused appear in Newmarket court next week.
Given how long the situation went on, “it’s so infuriating when the school and grown-up adults can’t read the signals and do the right thing,” Makuto said. “It’s been traumatic.”
The Vaughan African Canadian Association said there is “deep-seated racial tension” the school hasn’t dealt with over the years.
Sutton students, however, feel they’ve all been tarnished because of the actions of a “small pocket” of teens.
“We have been portrayed as a racist school, when really we are not like that,” said Jake Anderson, student council president. “It’s select individuals who do these kinds of things. The specific incident that happened that was in the Toronto Star does not represent our school.”
Grade 12 student Jessica Jones, a member of the school’s social justice league and also a peer mentor, said it’s a close-knit school because of its size — about 600 students.
On Tuesday, peer mentors “went around to Grade 9 classrooms and talked about having difficult conversations — for example, if one of your friends is using racial slurs, how do you deal with that?” said Danyal Ahmed, who is in Grade 11.
He was bullied in elementary school because of his skin colour but said he’s found Sutton a welcoming and safe place.
Still, just last year principal Dawn Laliberte had to ban teens from wearing items with the Confederate flag. She said she “addressed that issue head on” talked to all students, staff about the symbol and why it is offensive, and worked with inclusivity teams. The school also works with a division of the the York Regional Police hate-crimes unit. At the school, students who utter racial slurs “are immediately sent to the office, and then we do an entire education piece and restorative piece around the impact of that word and how it makes people feel. We are really trying to get at the emotional side of it as well as the educational side of it.” Students are “disgusted” about what happened last month, Laliberte said.
“Do we have a small pocket that we have to continue to work with? Yes. I believe every region has a small pocket. Is is deep-seated? Absolutely not. I talked to students and they said (the incident) was disgusting and should never have happened.”
Police have made 20 visits to York Region high schools this year promoting diversity and human rights — seven of those visits to Sutton.
Det.-Const. Mark Topping, who works with the diversity bureau under the force’s hate crime unit, sat down with the victim weeks before the beating, trying to be pro-active and to let him and his family know about available resources.
The Makuto family moved from Thornhill to Pefferlaw last October. seeking a quieter life, living near the water.
“From the day we moved in, PJ was the subject of bullying, harassment and racism,” said his dad. “He didn’t say anything for a long time.”
Makuto and his wife only found out in February that their son had been the target of slurs and physical attacks on the bus and at school, and said a bunch of teens even came to the house one night yelling out the N-word and other derogatory terms.
Before switching to Sutton, PJ had not been in trouble at school. But since the move, he has been called names, pushed and shoved, and been suspended five times — including once when he brought a steak knife to school to defend himself, according to his father.
The family asked the superintendent and school to implement a plan to keep their son safe, but said nothing happened, even after the schoolyard assault.
“The recent fight was the most disturbing. It’s horrible, the name-calling — it’s barbaric,” said his dad.
Students have also made “crass and barbaric” comments on Facebook.
“He’s in shock,” Makuto said of his son. “. . . Is he a saint? No, he isn’t a saint. He also said some stuff. But he was a new kid trying to make some friends.”
Tendons in PJ’s hand were broken in the attack, and he is now wearing a sling, Makuto said.
The family — Mom from South Africa and Dad from Zimbabwe — say they don’t regret moving from Africa to Canada, or even to Pefferlaw. They have great friends and neighbours, said Makuto.
“But the community needs to know this is not aceptable.”
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