PDSB inflicted ‘trauma and hurt’ on Black students, board admits
It wasn’t just the empty gallery Tuesday evening that created a sombre mood inside the Peel District School Board meeting chamber.
The public, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was absent.
Another scourge infesting the board had to be dealt with, and there was no place for elected trustees to hide.
Anti-Black discrimination, fostered by a system that has allowed the behaviour to spread, like its own type of virus, will no longer be allowed to thrive inside the country’s third largest school board.
Those elected officials who have fought to eradicate this terrible epidemic from the system, addressed a damning provincial review that confirmed what they already knew.
“The review was so traumatic for me to read,” said Brampton Trustee Kathy McDonald. “If it doesn’t wake people up, nothing will.” The chair of the board would later admit that it has been a cause of many problems and he vowed to change things.
PDSB Brampton Trustee Kathy McDonald
Trustee Nokha Dakroub, who has championed change, said reading about the stories of discrimination captured in the report was heartbreaking. She thanked the Ministry of Education, which launched the review late last year after tensions between the Black community and the board had reached a breaking point.
“I know for some of my colleagues to read through the stories and read through the report… brought it to life and made it more substantial, made it so much more real,” she said.
McDonald, the most steadfast critic of the board’s past practices, told The Pointer the measures passed at the meeting are a “baby step” towards significant reform.
On Tuesday evening, the PDSB’s board of trustees met for the first time since the release of the comprehensive provincial review affirming the concerns of students, parents and educators that the school board has had a long history of institutional discrimination toward Black students.
The supplementary school board meeting was convened specifically to address the findings of the review, among them that the PDSB has engaged in “systemic” discrimination against and censured Black students disproportionately, some as young as four years old.
School officials seemed “paralyzed by inaction” to effect meaningful change in the lives of Black students, the review found.
A parent at a PDSB meeting last year protesting anti-Black discrimination
The review also found the board has failed to reduce a diversity gap which has resulted in an overrepresentation of white teachers and administrators even though PDSB’s student population is almost 85 percent non-white. Close to 70 percent of its educators and administrators are white.
Perhaps the most scathing criticism was reserved for trustees who were described by review co-authors Ena Chadha, Suzanne Herbert and Shawn Richard as dysfunctional and fractured, undermining efforts to collectively address anti-Black racism.
Following the release of the report March 13, the school board was given a firm deadline by the Ontario Ministry of Education to meet 27 strict directives personally issued by Minister Stephen Lecce with regular reporting on the progress made toward these requirements. Any failure to meet the directions set out by Lecce which carry into 2022, carry serious penalty including having the option to “direct an investigation of the board” and potentially put it under the control of the Ministry.
“These directions are made with the aim for swift action, with the understanding that structural issues and deep-seated culture cannot be addressed by ‘quick fixes’ and will require sustained organizational focus over time,” Lecce wrote in a letter to the board advising of the directives.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce in Peel last year
“My hope is that, by implementing these directions, the Board can continue to move towards more accountable and transparent leadership and governance practices, equity and regain public confidence.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, six directives, with a deadline for compliance given by Lecce of March 26, were addressed. They are:
- Requiring each board trustee during the meeting to affirm their willingness to take part in third-party mediation sessions to resolve lingering hostilities addressed in the review, which found trustees’ individual interactions were characterized by disrespectful exchanges and an unwillingness to work together to address anti-Black racism.
- Confirming to the Ministry’s satisfaction the suspension of any official complaints lodged toward each other, which the review concluded has “weaponized” the PDSB’s ethics code to settle personal grievances.
- Publicly agreeing to no longer take part in school board hiring panels recommending a job candidate, which has resulted, according to the review’s findings, in nepotism and political interference.
- Agreeing to an externally appointed “governance expert” to oversee the Board’s conduct and confirm sufficient progress is made in eliminating racist practices.
- Surrendering documents or paperwork related to past hiring practices, which should have been already submitted by trustees to the school board officials.
- Regular reporting of the board’s progress in meeting the Ministry’s requirements.
Each of the recommendations was approved unanimously by the Board.
Other provincial directives that will also have to be adhered to 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.
- 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.”
Joshua has been at the centre of many of the problems, and he is singled out in a troubling complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by the PDSB’s head of equity and inclusion, Poleen Grewal. She alleges that Joshua and the board have fostered a culture of anti-Black attitudes and sought retribution against her for challenging them.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
Joshua has not had a formal performance review since his hiring in 2017, but under the province’s directives that will now be done and he will now be forced to comply with the rest of the orders.
The review, conducted by the three authors who also led the interview panel, paints a disturbing picture of Peel’s largest school board, home to almost 160,000 students and 257 schools.
Some of the most troubling pieces of evidence came from teachers who were interviewed for 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.”
In contrast to past meetings characterized by protests from onlookers and even having the police being called to break up proceedings, the chambers were empty Tuesday. With COVID-19 a central concern, the meeting was closed to the public and live streamed.
Only chair Brad MacDonald and vice-chair David Green were at the board's regular meeting place inside the HJA Brown Education Centre in Mississauga. The rest of the board attended remotely, participating through a conference call along with senior PDSB staff members.
In his opening remarks, MacDonald offered an apology on behalf of the board, admitting it will take more than words to make up for the “trauma and hurt” inflicted by PDSB policies and actions against Black students.
“Apologies mean nothing if we don't take action to address and correct systemic issues that result in the marginalization and oppression,” said MacDonald.
Green said the issues highlighted in the review are not unique to Peel.
PDSB Vice-Chair David Green
“From what I can see, and from where I sit because I talk to trustees right across the province, I realize that this is a problem not just for the education system but the system at large,” said Green.
Advocacy Peel, which has sharply criticized the PDSB’s record on racism, said the Board must continue to demonstrate a real willingness to change its practices as well as meaningfully acknowledge its shameful record of discriminatory action.
“The PDSB must be reminded that this is not a report done for them about Black children, but is rather a report done for children and parents of the school system that validates what they have already known – anti-Black racism is a daily reality for Black students and parents in the system,” said the group in a statement.
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