The Winnipeg School Division is investigating after a First Nations student reported a peer sneaked up behind him, snipped the bottom of his hair — which was tied back into a traditional braid — and took off around lunchtime Monday.
Grandmother Sophia Ballantyne said her grandson, a Grade 7 student at Elmwood High, was sitting in the cafeteria when he heard the sound of scissors.
When the boy turned around, he saw some of his hair on the floor, Ballantyne said.
“It made my blood boil!” she wrote in a message to the Free Press. “My grandsons are proud of their hair, they grow it for those who couldn’t as they are second- and third-generation residential school thrivers.”
The act is the latest in a series of bullying incidents the boy has been subject to throughout the school year, said Ballantyne, who is serving as the family’s spokeswoman.
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The grandmother indicated more than one student has tugged at the 12-year-old’s braid on different occasions. “He does not want to go back to school,” she added.
Elmwood’s principal was alerted to the situation shortly after it happened Monday and the school has been working with the student and his family to provide support since, said Radean Carter, communications director at the division.
Carter condemned the act of one student “interfering with another student’s person.”
“The investigation will continue and once all the parties are identified, that’s when the next steps with restorative practices will come into play,” she said, adding such a response will allow for education about appropriate behaviour and the cultural significance of braids.
Seven years ago, the University of Winnipeg hosted the city’s inaugural Boys with Braids gathering to share teachings about the sacredness of hair across many Indigenous cultures and foster a sense of pride among boys who grow their locks.
Saskatchewan father Michael Linklater founded the movement, which has since garnered international attention, to denounce his and his children’s experiences with harassment, and educate others on why Indigenous boys and men choose to wear their hair long.
Jordan Bighorn has heard countless teachings about hair and related ceremonial practices, from wearing two braids to represent the balance of men and women to a single braid down one’s back reflecting their “spiritual spine.”
From a Dakota perspective, the length of one’s hair is like a tree’s rings in that it can symbolize longevity and events throughout one’s life, said Bighorn, co-director of Winnipeg’s Community Education Development Association.
Bighorn’s 13-year-old son has been growing his out for several years. The teenager’s hair goes past his waist and as a result, his father said he has been occasionally teased about his gender.
“We’re in this era of reclamation, acknowledgement, justice as it relates to the history of discrimination and the very symbolic cutting of hair in residential schools,” said Bighorn, who attended the city’s most recent Boys with Braids event, which was held at a WSD school in 2018.
Regardless of motive, incidents such as the one that unfolded Monday traumatize those involved and warrant an environmental shift so all grade 7-12 community members understand their responsibility in creating a safe space, he said.
Bighorn said this is not about “one bad apple,” but rather a culture that has allowed for ongoing bullying.
As far as Ballantyne is concerned, the response needs to involve the perpetrator’s parents, police and increased cultural sensitivity training for school employees.
Police are aware of the Elmwood incident and planned to follow up with the family and school Tuesday, Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson Const. Dani McKinnon said.
Multiple students told the Free Press there have been at least two other high-profile incidents in their building this year, including a fight involving several students that the former principal broke up, and a high school student punching an employee.
Division administrators are in the process of reviewing serious incidents — events that prompt a school to make an emergency call or issue a hold-and-secure or lockdown — and the nature of those recorded in recent years.
“There definitely does appear to be more this year, and we’re looking into what may be the root cause of that,” Carter said.
WSD officials are examining data both from when the division had a police-in-schools program, and since trustees voted to axe the costly partnership with WPS.
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