Province stepping in to deal with allegations of systemic ‘anti-Black racism’ within Peel District School Board
There is turmoil inside Peel District School Board. The province announced Thursday that it is intervening to address allegations of systemic “anti-Black racism” inside the organization. And one Black trustee says some of her colleagues and the board’s director are complicit in the damage.
Following a month of tension that saw a white trustee apologize for what many viewed as a racist remark about one of the region’s schools, after the acting chair denied the comment was ever made, followed by reports of a deeply disturbing discrimination-based human rights complaint filed by the board’s head of equity and inclusion, the provincial ministry of education announced Thursday that it is taking drastic action to help the troubled board.
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce made clear the reason for the ministry’s intervention.
“Discrimination and prejudice against students is unacceptable. That is why I am confirming our government will be taking action,” he stated in the announcement. “I intend to appoint reviewers to conduct an immediate review of the PDSB – and, upon completion, provide a final report to me with recommendations on how the board could ensure effective board governance that promotes equity, increases accountability and transparency, and safeguards the success and well-being of students - irrespective of heritage, faith, colour of skin, orientation, or socio-economic status.”
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce
Lecce’s statement was far more detailed than the board’s vague announcement about the ministry’s intervention.
"Schools must be safe, inclusive, and welcoming places for students, staff, and the entire community,” Lecce stated in Thursday’s release. “Allegations related to equity in the Peel District School Board have raised concerns, specifically related to anti-Black racism and lack of adherence to governance, leadership, and human resources practices. These concerns have been raised by families, students, the Peel District School Board Director of Education, the board of trustees, and members of the broader community.”
In the board’s statement released today from Chair Stan Cameron and Vice-Chair Sue Lawton the two said they reached out to the Ministry of Education on Oct. 17 “requesting assistance and intervention for the Board of Trustees.”
“We made a commitment to work on our governance and so we reached out to the Ministry of Education for support,” the statement reads.
It further notes that the meeting of the board scheduled for Nov. 13 will now be cancelled ahead of the review by the province.
“We are thankful for the Ministry of Education's support and continue to be committed to working alongside Peel District School Board staff, students, families and community members to ensure student success and well-being.”
The board’s statement, regarding a school system whose students are predominantly non-white, but whose teachers and administrators are predominantly white, makes no mention of the anti-Black racism or issues with governance referred to by the province in its stunning announcement. In the letter to the ministry sent by Cameron and forwarded by the board to The Pointer, it merely states, “Given the many circumstances taking place we ask that your office offer our board some assistance and intervention in what has become an increasingly difficult board to manage.”
The lack of admission about any issue with anti-Black racism or inequity in general does not surprise Trustee Kathy McDonald, who says Lawton and Cameron have failed to address the mounting tension.
“What was going through my mind, it highlights the problem,” McDonald told The Pointer Thursday, referring to a remark Lawton made when she was the acting chair presiding over the last meeting of the board.
PDSB Vice-Chair Sue Lawton
Lawton had told concerned members representing the Black community that a racially charged comment had never been made by her colleague, Trustee William Davies, who had been accused of referring to McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton, as "McCriminal", earlier this year. McDonald had stated at the trustee’s board meeting that the comment had been made and she had for months tried to get the board to address the matter, head-on.
After Lawton shut down members of the community during the meeting, telling them the incident had never happened, despite McDonald’s repeated assurances that witnesses heard the comment, Davies, who remained silent during the meeting, admitted to the media the next day that he had made an inappropriate, racially insensitive remark.
“She said no, it didn’t happen and she believed her other colleague. She did not apologize,” McDonald says, referring to Lawton’s silence after the admission and her behaviour toward members of the Black community when she chaired the meeting.
But McDonald says that was just one example of a persistent and "systemic" problem within the board. She describes a "lack of trust" among many in Peel's diverse Black community. She’s also puzzled about the way next week’s meeting was cancelled. She learned about it on Monday through an email from the board that stated five trustees did not want to attend and therefore the meeting was being cancelled. McDonald says it’s clear that certain trustees made the move collectively, excluding others from the decision. She says she was never consulted.
She’s not surprised and says the actions of Lawton at the last meeting illustrate how things have long operated.
“It’s the story of my life at that board. I am the one who’s lying. This is typical of the Black experience. You always have to prove yourself above and beyond anybody else.”
PDSB Trustee Kathy McDonald
She says numerous attempts to address issues that have been escalating for years were met with opposition by board leaders.
“When Chair Cameron chewed me out at a meeting, he was angry, but as a white male he can demonstrate [his concern] but as a Black woman who is calmly expressing my frustration, I am angry.”
McDonald detailed a number of disturbing incidents she has tried to address, only to be met with a common refrain from PDSB Director Peter Joshua and other leaders: don’t rock the boat.
During a professional development conference for secondary teachers in April, McDonald, who is co-chair of the We Rise Together committee, which oversees a board-wide initiative to address anti-Black bias, says she was surprised to hear what one of the student presenters said during her address to the teachers, relating what one of her own teachers told her after learning the student would be speaking at the conference to express the support of non-Black students.
“She said to the student, ‘Listen, they’re not like our race. Black people are not smart, they’re lazy and nothing you do can help them’.”
When McDonald went to Joshua after the conference demanding action, she says the director questioned why she was at the conference.
She related examples of complaints about racist behaviour by other students in school that are commonly ignored by teachers and administrators.
One of those same teachers, according to complaints that came forward to McDonald, did not display such a cavalier response when a Black student made an inappropriate joke. “The teacher said, ‘you and your monkey friends better watch yourself’... Anti-Black racism is alive and we need to do something about it.”
But when McDonald went to Joshua about the comments made by the student who presented at the teacher conference, she says he was more concerned about her attendance at a meeting for teachers, and then suggested she had misunderstood what the student was trying to express, as Joshua attempted to protect the reputation of the teacher’s school which is in an upscale area of Mississauga.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
“We have a staff member who has said this comment. At least deal with the staff member. You don’t have to tell me what you are doing, but [you] question why was I there.”
She says she reminded Joshua that he had invited another trustee to attend a different professional development conference for teachers.
“I’m invited to attend a We Rise (professional development conference) and you have an issue with it? And I am the co-chair of the We Rise committee.” McDondald says she is unaware of any action Joshua took to address the comments the student made in front of all the teachers who attended the conference. She said teachers and other staff are scared to come forward with any information about disturbing actions that McDonald says are “systemic” within the board.
A board spokesperson said no comment beyond today’s public statement and the earlier letter from Cameron and Lawton, would be made.
Lecce laid out the expectations of the board’s decision-makers.
“Likewise, we expect our school leaders – trustees and senior administration – to provide effective, transparent, and accountable school board governance, to make sure that students of the board are well served and that they are learning in safe, welcoming and inclusive classrooms, and that board staff are working in an environment that respects and upholds principles of equity and human rights."
The province’s announcement follows weeks of turmoil within the board.
Trustee Davies was accused earlier this year of calling McCrimmon Middle School, "McCriminal". The school has a large number of Black and other racialized students, who make up the vast majority of its student body.
PDSB Trustee William Davies
Davies responded by email to The Pointer, after he was asked if he did indeed make the "McCriminal" remark and if he understands why the comment was problematic. "As you know I am a new trustee, I am trying to follow process and procedures laid out in our code of conduct. In an attempt to try and de-escalate a very unfortunate miscommunication," he wrote. "As such I cannot at this time answer the questions."
“I apologize again for the hurt that it has caused members of the Peel community….Although I never intended it as a racist comment, I have learned that the reference could be perceived as not only offensive, but racist,” he stated.
It remains unclear why Lawton, during the public meeting, refused to even acknowledge the comment was made.
After members of the public demanded answers during the meeting, Lawton said, “We have no record … of that comment.” She then told another member of the public, who asked about Davies’ remark and what would be done about it, “I’m not going to answer that question … because it never happened.” Both responses drew jeers from the crowd.
Following that, on Oct. 31, The Pointer reported the alarming details included in a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario complaint filed by the PDSB’s Associate Director Poleen Grewal, who is in charge of equity and inclusion for the entire board.
The damning complaint alleges the board’s director, Joshua, and the board itself discriminated against her and then retaliated against her for raising concerns over systemic anti-Black and anti-South Asian conduct within the organization.
PDSB Associate Director Poleen Grewal with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh
The allegations in the complaint paint a disturbing picture of a board whose 154,000 students are overwhelmingly non-white, while its teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly white.
“I am a Sikh woman of South Asian ancestry and believe my right to equal treatment with respect to freedom from discrimination and harassment in employment…has been infringed by Peter Joshua…Director of Education and the Peel District School Board,” Grewal wrote in her complaint, filed March 8. (Read details of the complaint here.)
In their joint response filed to the human rights tribunal, the PDSB and Joshua deny all the allegations in Grewal’s complaint and call for it to be dismissed “as it has no reasonable prospect of success and no merit.”
McDonald would not comment on the human rights complaint filed by the board’s head of equity and inclusion, but did say that it came as a shock to many inside the organization, and that she was not surprised, given what she has witnessed.
She referred to the board’s Journey Ahead initiative, which was launched in 2013 following the high-profile human rights case against the board, filed by former vice-principal Ranjit Khatkur, who, in defence of her claim of being discriminated against when she was routinely rejected for promotion, provided evidence that only 2 out of 37 principals at PDSB high schools were non-white, at the time.
The board eventually settled with her.
But McDonald says little has changed.
“They are supposed to have targeted hiring now. But whenever we ask why few Black and indigenous teachers are being hired, the board says we have to hire the best.”
She gave examples of nepotism and preferential hiring and promotions, which Grewal also details in her human rights complaint.
The board was embarrassed when, months after it launched its Journey Ahead initiative to improve hiring and promotional practices, it was learned that a candidate straight out of teacher’s college was hired at a PDSB high school where her mother worked, while seven experienced teachers who applied were overlooked.
“You have a board where 75 to 80 percent of the students are racialized, but the teachers are flipped,” McDonald says. “At least 80 percent of them are white, from my observations. And administrators and the decision-makers at the top of the board, the number is even higher, in my estimation.”
She says no race-based statistics have been provided, but results of a board-wide census are expected very soon. “We have been told that a report on the Journey Ahead program was ready more than a year ago, to show us if the board is following its own policy, but we have not seen it. We have asked for it.”
With the province now set to intervene, action on that report and other governance moves will likely be taken to help a board that has not responded to the demographic reality in Peel Region.
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