Language selector

Under suspicion: Concerns about racial profiling in education

Page controls

Page content

Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates peoples’ rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). People from many different communities experience racial profiling. However, it is often directed at First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Arabs, West Asians and Black people, and is often influenced by the negative stereotypes that people in these communities face.

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) began a year-long consultation to learn more about the nature of racial profiling in Ontario. Our aim was to gather information to help us guide organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling. We connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives.

We conducted an online survey, analyzed cases (called applications) at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, and reviewed academic research. We conducted focus groups with Indigenous peoples and received written submissions. Overall, almost 1,650 individuals and organizations told us about their experiences or understanding of racial profiling in Ontario.

Most of the reports of racial profiling in education came from parents of affected children, or elementary and high school educators. Fewer consultation participants described experiences of racial profiling in college or university. Over 100 survey respondents said that they experienced racial profiling in the education system.

Concerns about discipline based on race

We heard concerns about how Indigenous or racialized students commonly face negative assumptions at school, which results in them being given less room to make mistakes. We heard that compared to White students, they are more likely assumed to have behavioural difficulties, or to be “unruly” or “aggressive.” These assumptions may give rise to incidents of racial profiling. 

We also heard that racialized youth generally experience higher rates of discipline than White youth. Toronto District School Board (TDSB) census data from 2006-2012 reveals that students who self-identify as Black, Latin American, Mixed or Middle Eastern have relatively higher suspension rates than White students and students from other racial backgrounds. In a 2014 racial discrimination claim (called an application) against the Durham Catholic District School Board, the HRTO found no discrimination. However, it did find that there were significant racial disparities in suspensions and recommended the school board conduct a review. Research from the U.S. also shows that racialized students, particularly Black students, are more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students.

Survey respondents also wrote about how racialized and Indigenous students are often assumed to have started conflicts with other students. They were also perceived to be disciplined disproportionately (for example, singled out for discipline for behaviour that was minor in nature, and singled out for discipline for behaviour that White children also engaged in). Survey respondents reported that racialized students receive harsher treatment or punishment than their White peers for similar behaviour.

In 2005, the OHRC filed HRTO applications against the TDSB and the Ministry of Education alleging that the application of the safe schools provisions of the Education Act and related school discipline policies had a disproportionate impact on racialized students and students with disabilities. The complaint against the Ministry of Education led to amendments to the Education Act and its regulations that removed reference to “zero tolerance” discipline approaches, among other changes. It is concerning that perceptions of disproportionate discipline of racialized students and evidence of these disproportions persist despite the settlement.

Concerns about over-monitoring, police and security guards

We heard how some racialized students were inappropriately stopped and questioned by police, either in school or on university campus by campus security. Some consultation participants perceived schools to be complicit in racial profiling by police and other agencies. Concerns were raised that schools allow police inside, who then may over-scrutinize, inappropriately question and sometimes search students.

One high school teacher said:

Schools are absolutely complicit by letting police into schools on a regular basis, letting cops work closely with youth in hopes of gathering intelligence, by withholding information from students about their legal rights inside and outside of school (White female, age 35-44).

Similarly, one submission to the OHRC’s policy dialogue describes the increased surveillance in “vulnerable schools” in Toronto, which have relatively larger numbers of Black students. The authors raise concerns that at these schools, police and school administrators review camera footage of students, interrogate them and have described them as “perpetrators.” The authors describe how the “clearly criminalizing and racializing interactions youth have with the police on the streets… are replicated in schools” (Naomi Nichols, Jessica Braimoh & Alison Fisher, submission to the OHRC’s racial profiling policy dialogue – for more information, see the full OHRC report, Under suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario).

In cases – called applications – at the HRTO, some claimants alleged that school officials discriminated against them based on race by involving the police on the incorrect assumption that the student posed a threat. In some cases, this led to the student being arrested. If school officials contact police based even partially on race and related grounds, instead of a real assessment of risk, this may indicate racial profiling.

Two survey respondents noted particular concerns about educational institutions’ complicity or participation in over-scrutinizing Muslim students to gather intelligence about potential radicalization. One person wrote about how the school social worker watches when Friday prayers are happening, just in case someone says something “radical.”

Being singled out based on stereotypes that link religion, race or ethnicity with being a security threat can have devastating educational and personal consequences for youth. Consequences may include poor academic performance, school disengage-ment and students’ eventual involvement in the criminal justice system. This is called the “school-to-prison pipeline” and has been observed in the U.S.

Ways to address racial profiling in education

Preventing and addressing racial profiling is a shared responsibility. Government, educational institutions (such as school boards, colleges and universities) and other responsible organizations must take concrete action and decisive steps to prevent, identify and respond to racial profiling.

The OHRC has made many recommendations over several years to address racial profiling. These recommendations are included in our Under suspicion report. Where applicable, these recommendations should be used to identify how racial profiling may be taking place in the education system. They also identify specific approaches organizations should use to prevent and address racial profiling.

Overall, consultation participants agreed with the following broad strategies to prevent and address racial profiling:

  • Anti-bias training
  • Developing policies, procedures and guidelines
  • Effective accountability monitoring and accountability
    mechanisms, including:
    • complaint procedures
    • disciplinary measures
    • collecting, analyzing and reporting on data
  • Holistic organizational change strategy
  • Leadership
  • Communication (external and internal)
  • Engagement with affected stakeholders.

Next steps

The OHRC will:

  • Develop specific policy guidance to help individuals, community groups
    and organizations understand how racial profiling can be prevented and addressed
  • Continue to call for the collection of race-based data and data on other Code grounds to better understand if racial disparities exist in the education sector
  • Continue to work with community stakeholders to enhance public education on racial profiling.

For more information

To find out more about racial profiling in the education and other sectors, the Under suspicion report is available online at

To file a human rights claim (called an application), contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at:

Toll Free: 1-866-598-0322
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-607-1240

If you need legal help, contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at:
Toll Free: 1-866-625-5179
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-612-8627

©2017 Queen’s Printer for Ontario