Province hands down damning indictment of PDSB in probe of systemic anti-Black behaviour
The Peel District School Board is riddled with anti-Black attitudes and practices that create a deeply discouraging environment for students who do not see themselves reflected in the schools they attend.
This is the disturbing conclusion of a comprehensive review ordered by the Ontario Ministry of Education to address mounting dysfunction within the country’s third largest school board.
The long awaited review, released Friday, of equity practices and the commitment to inclusion within the PDSB confirms what parents and educators have been saying for years, that implicit bias and systemic discrimination against Black students exists.
The review’s authors, Ena Chadha, Suzanne Herbert and Shawn Richard, who collectively brought extensive experience in the fields of equity and inclusion, human rights and law, also made up the three-person panel that carried out the work under the supervision of Assistant Deputy Education Minister Patrick Case.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua has been the focus of criticism against the board
Some of the most troubling pieces of evidence came from teachers who were interviewed by the three-person panel that oversaw the review.
“One teacher told us that, in response to a request to provide pizza for a meeting of Black students, the principal replied that ‘not one of those students was worth the price of pizza’”, the report states.
Another teacher explained how Black students are influenced not to pursue academically empowering paths.
“We heard from one PDSB math teacher that, when considering future studies and careers, parents and students do not realize it is better to receive a 60% in academic math than a 90% in applied because the student’s options for future educational pathways are greater with academic credits, while more limited with applied credits.”
The final report includes a number of anecdotes describing how Black students are kept away from academic streams in favour of applied streams which do not align with many university and college programs.
“Many students, parents, and teachers told us there is an urgent need for guidance counselors who understand the experiences of Black students,” the report states.
“One principal we met with noted that teacher bias in assessment, pedagogy, and curriculum design results in Black students’ lived experience left excluded and unacknowledged.”
PDSB's head of equity and inclusion Poleen Grewal, right, has filed a human rights complaint against her own board, alleging widespread anti-Black discrimination
The report is filled with pages of deeply troubling evidence that the PDSB has ingrained, systemic barriers constantly faced by Black youths and other marginalized students.
“We heard of a teacher suggesting that a young elementary Black student ‘will be a drug dealer just like his dad’, and another teacher telling a Black colleague that the colleague was ‘surprisingly well spoken’. One student relayed how the principal told this student to stop hanging around with his ‘monkey friends’ in reference to his Black peers.”
It’s clear from the panel’s findings that even some who work within the board, which has failed to keep up with Peel’s diverse demographics, have lost faith in its ability to function in a healthy and progressive way for its students.
“We heard consistently from senior administrators, principals, teachers, and the broader community that there needs to be a reorganization of the equity portfolio at the senior administration level.”
The absence of Black teachers — in a system whose hiring practices continue to favour new hires that do not reflect the student-body but do reflect the overwhelming majority of white educators — is a common issue addressed in the report.
“Many Black educators in school-based roles told us that they feel isolated and are sometimes the only — or one of a few — Black teachers or administrators in their school. This is the case even in schools where there are high proportions of Black students.”
Despite the damning findings in the report, released Friday, many in the community say it does not go far enough.
It highlights four areas that need to be addressed immediately: governance and leadership; equity and human rights; anti-Black racism; and human resources and organizational alignment.
Longtime critics of the school board say the review, while confirming what they have tried to address for years, ultimately fails to hold the PDSB administration responsible.
With a solid body of evidence now in hand, detailing examples of the board’s systematic discrimination against Black students, treating them differently than other students, advocates are already demanding tangible action out of the province’s review.
“These are things we’ve been talking about all these years and have been happily documented [in the report],” said parent advocate Kola Iluyomade after the release of the report Friday. “But if the review agrees with the abysmal treatment of our children, then where is the responsibility and accountability?”
The report, which was ordered by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce last year, had been eagerly awaited. It was released to the public Friday morning ahead of the March Break holiday and at a time when most people’s minds are on the coronavirus pandemic.
It compiles anecdotal evidence provided to investigators by parents, students and educators over the course of 115 interviews conducted between December and February. Witness accounts of anti-Black attitudes and practices within PDSB are included, but critics want to know how they will now be addressed.
There are 27 directions by the Minister included in a document attached to the review, and Lecce has given the PDSB its marching orders to meet his required changes, including specific deadlines for implementing the directions.
The requirements include:
- The hiring of an independent mediator to resolve dysfunction between and among board members including trustees. The board’s director, Peter Joshua, who critics believe is the cause of many of the problems, has been ordered to participate in the mediation sessions.
- Members of the board have to immediately halt participation on hiring, promotion and appointment panels, with a new policy to be created that will restrict these members from being involved in hiring and promotion.
- The board has to retain an “external parliamentarian/governance expert” to create new procedures and policies for “effective, respectful, and transparent governance.”
- A mandatory annual learning plan to ensure all board members are aware of provincial legislation that guides education policy in Ontario, as well as human rights codes and other rules they must follow in their jobs.
- Measures to ensure that board committees and other bodies accurately reflect the community’s diversity.
- The board must hire an “external expert” to “conduct a robust, transparent appraisal of the performance of” board director Peter Joshua, “including his performance relating to addressing anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and other pressing areas of equity, and board governance and human resources practices.”
The directions are a stinging indictment of Joshua’s leadership, effectively laying much of the blame for the systemic problems at his feet and taking away much of his ability to rule with an iron fist, which his critics have publicly claimed he has done. He will now be forced to comply, and could be removed if he does not.
In regard to Joshua, who has come up for scathing criticism from trustees and community members alike, the report notes the director has not undergone a formal performance review since he was hired back in July 2017.
While the report focuses on anti-Black racism, it also lists disturbing examples of discrimination toward Muslim, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and Jewish students.
“It is untenable that, for many years, the Board has been unaware of this terrible state of affairs. Information gleaned from the Board’s own data discloses a prima facie case of race-based, and more particularly anti-Black, discrimination and it must be remedied,” the authors state.
The report’s findings point the finger at a board workforce that fails to reflect the diversity of its student body, citing data that shows 67 percent of Peel school educators and administrators are white compared to 83 percent of students who are non-white, creating a sizable diversity gap which has resulted in severe consequences for Black students in particular. PDSB’s hiring practices have not kept pace with other school boards, which have proactively sought to increase diversity.
What’s doubly frustrating for critics is that concerns expressed in the report were voiced long ago, with troubling board practices dating back nearly 30 years, often detailed in other reviews.
Those reviews also found diversity hiring was sorely lacking, and school curriculum routinely developed from a predominantly Eurocentric mindset.
Black history courses, though popular with students, were poorly supported. Instruction centred more on historical experiences with slavery and on U.S. Black historical figures such as Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, with little reference to Canadian experiences.
This is seen, notes the report, at Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School, located in Malton. Alexander was the first Black MP to serve in the House of Commons, but there is little indication of his achievements in the school named in his honour. Even a video posted on the school’s website, touting its welcoming and inclusive academic environment, contains no references to Alexander’s role in history.
While other school boards have sought to correct this imbalance, the PDSB has lagged far behind, the authors point out, and the failure to improve equity standards has fostered an environment within the board where Black students are treated to a stricter behavioural standard than the rest of their classmates.
Respondents told the reviewers they were targets for some Peel educators who used any excuse to discipline them. They could be arbitrarily suspended for uniform violations, wearing hoodies or doo rags, no matter their age.
The review examined suspension rates for Peel students and found Black students as early as junior kindergarten are being disciplined at a far higher rate than other students, and they are far more likely to have the police called to deal with them.
The review recounts one such incident when a police officer, attending a school for a completely different reason, personally intervened in a situation and applied handcuffs to a Black elementary student, resulting in an outcome “nothing short of traumatizing for the young student and their family.”
Black students are more than twice as likely, compared to non-Black students, to receive suspensions. According to the report, the board itself disclosed that 78 percent of suspensions handed out between 2013 and 2019 to Black high school students were in the category of “other”, offering little explanation for what “other” meant.
Some Black students as young as 4 were suspended over that time period.
“This is a worrisome trend indicating the PDSB needs to undertake an examination, and provide the community with greater elucidation, of the reasons and criteria that trigger the discretionary use of ‘other’ suspensions,” the report states.
Discipline wasn’t the only area where Black students are treated differently. When deciding on academic streaming, the review finds implicit bias by Peel educators in assessing Black students for less-advanced learning streams, making it harder for them to pursue a path to a post-secondary education.
Even Black students excelling academically were advised by Peel school guidance counsellors to forgo university and pursue a vocational path instead, and they were given less time for consultations about career paths.
In one instance, a Black student was not allowed to transfer to a higher academic stream, resulting in two extra years of study so he could earn his high school diploma. In another instance, The parents attended a curriculum information night at their mixed race child’s school, and were given pamphlets by organizers. While the white parent was given information about academic learning programs, the Black parent was instead given material for “applied programs”.
“This situation is cogently illustrative of the institutionalized racism that manifests in the PDSB guidance system,” the report states.
The report strongly recommends a total reworking of Peel’s guidance system, which should emphasise hiring more Black male guidance counselors in particular who can understand and appreciate lived experiences of Black students.
In the case of racism experienced from peers, such as the use of racial epithets, the respondents felt under supported by Peel educators, who they said frequently turned a blind eye to “microaggressions” committed against Black students. In some instances, school administration failed to inform parents about racist abuse suffered by their children, or failed to follow up administering discipline.
In some cases, it was the educators themselves, said respondents, who were upholding racist attitudes, referring to Black students as criminals, and referring to schools with large Black populations disparagingly.
A Peel teacher, for example told an elementary student he would become a drug dealer like his father.
Black educators also experienced demeaning behaviour. A Black teacher disclosed to the review that one of his colleagues had mentioned that he was ‘surprisingly well spoken’. Another student claims he was ordered by his school principal to stop hanging around his ‘monkey’ friends, who were Black.
The report makes reference to one such instance when Trustee William Davies used the term “McCriminal” in front of colleagues, referring to McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton, which has a high Black student population.
PDSB Trustee William Davies
Davies, who is not named in the report, was served an official complaint by colleagues for his use of the term and the matter was referred to the PDSB. Instead of disciplining Davies, who had insisted the use of the term was used in jest and without any racial overtones, Peel Integrity Commissioner Sandhya Kohli cleared the trustee of any wrongdoing.
Kohli’s decision included puzzling personal attacks against Brampton Trustee Kathy McDonald, whose advocacy around the “McCriminal” remark was described by Kohli as “spurious”, “disingenuous” and “harmful”.
The subsequent outrage over Kohli’s claims and her overall report was a factor that compelled Minister Lecce to order the sweeping board review.
The provincial reviewers zeroed in on Kohli’s personal attack against McDonald.
“We do not understand her critical comments referable to Trustee Kathy McDonald, who did not bring the claim before the Commissioner. They were, in our view, unnecessary, unhelpful and divisive.”
PDSB Trustee Kathy McDonald
The review directions include guidelines for the future use of an integrity commissioner: “The Board shall retain an additional Integrity Commissioner with demonstrated experience and expertise in the application of human rights principles and the application of the Ontario Human Rights Code to be responsible for code of conduct complaints which involve human rights issues.”
While the review finds “clear inconsistencies” in Kohli’s report, at odds with the PDSB’s own official policies towards discrimination, it stops short of condemning the final ruling, determining the Board had not addressed habitual use of such derogatory terms meant to disparage schools with sizaeable Black populations. Instead, the board’s approach was to excuse the use of racist school nicknames, normalizing the practice, the report concludes.
The report saves perhaps its most scathing criticism for the Board of Trustees. Individual trustees are described as having little capacity for understanding their roles as leaders, while entrenched hostilities and patterns of dysfunction hamper the board’s ability to work together to address racism in the school system.
“We have not seen evidence of any collective capacity to effectively govern in the context of the deep divisions and chaos gripping the Board,” the report states.
“The Board of Trustees is dysfunctional, and fractured relationships are hindering the ability of the trustees to work together in a cooperative, respectful manner.”
The Pointer reached out to the board for comment on the review. A joint statement from Chair Brad MacDonald and PDSB Director Peter Joshua was referred to and is now posted on the school board website.
The two-page statement expresses remorse, and vows to make immediate changes, as well as regain the trust of the community.
“We are taking this report and its directives very seriously, and we want everyone in our community to be assured that we will not dismiss any of the findings or recommendations. We will work diligently to improve board governance and leadership practices so that we can continue to work to achieve inclusion for all through continuous progress on equity,” reads the statement, which was linked to the PDSB’s official plan.
That plan was also introduced on Friday, almost in conjunction with the release of the provincial review, and promises to address all of the areas of concern as identified in the report.
“The report highlights a lack of confidence in the Board of Trustees and senior leadership, particularly with respect to racism and equity. To restore confidence, the board commits to taking immediate action on all of the directives in each of the four sections included in the report: governance and leadership, equity and human rights, anti-Black racism, and human resources and organizational alignment,” the PDSB plan states.
The lack of oversight of Joshua is highlighted in the review.
Even after trustees agreed to a third-party review of Joshua’s record, that process has remained “problematic” according to the report, with no Trustees of colour included in a committee entrusted with the selection process.
“To date trustees have not tabled the Director’s performance appraisal as a priority. This is one of the core responsibilities of the Board of Trustees, and the inability to select a firm and proceed with the Director’s appraisal further speaks to the dysfunction at the Board table,” the report states.
For Iluyomade and others, pledges to do better are not acceptable and he has no confidence the PDSB with its current leadership will effectively address anti-Black racism within the school system.
The provincial review comes days after he and another parent were dealt with in an alarmingly heavy-handed way by the board for voicing their concern during recent public meetings of the board of trustees.
Iluyomade was one of two vocal critics of the PDSB to receive notices from the board this week, accusing him of harassment and derogatory comments, threatening to ban him from future public meetings, and placing restrictions on his ability to contact school board officials. Idris Orughu also received a similar notice which not only banned him from future board meetings for allegedly harassing and threatening a trustee, but forbids him from stepping on any board property until the end of the school year. Both men believe the notices, signed by Joshua, are intended to stifle criticism.
Iluyomade called the review “soul crushing” because it doesn’t make any recommendations for removing the existing board, or Joshua. With the current leadership structure in place, Iluyomade doesn’t expect to see any significant changes to a system that he and many others say is doing deep harm to Black students. But he vowed to keep fighting for change.
“What we are not accepting is a lack of responsibility,” he said.
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