PDSB moves on provincial directives to address anti-Black racism after weeks of turmoil
The public finally has a first glimpse of the efforts to stamp out systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism within the Peel District School Board, nearly two months after the province handed down a scathing investigation report that detailed trauma the board has caused and provided a list of 27 directives for how to begin fixing the situation.
On May 4, after weeks of deflecting questions about what was being done, PDSB's director of education Peter Joshua issued a lengthy media release detailing the board’s progress on a number of the province’s mandatory directives.
While the update is welcome news, it does little to provide reassurance to the community that the board’s behaviour has changed. The progress report, which fails to address many outstanding questions, came a few days after Education Minister Stephen Lecce was forced to hire an independent investigator to find out why the board was not cooperating after the original provincial report and its demands were handed down in March.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce, centre, meets with stakeholders as part of the province's recent review of the PDSB
The weeks since have been marred by dissent between trustees, a mediation process that broke down when two elected members walked away from the table, and an inflammatory letter from the board chair after Lecce tweeted that he would not tolerate “continued inaction”. Seeing that the process was breaking down, he appointed lawyer Arleen Huggins last week to immediately find out why the process was falling apart. Lecce said the move was made after concern that the ministry’s binding directives were in jeopardy because the board was not taking the directives seriously.
It appears the PDSB got the wake-up call.
Monday’s update from Joshua makes no mention of the turmoil swirling at the board table, and offers no explanation on the delay in providing an update to the community, only noting the board “must do better to provide all members of the community, in particular Black students, staff and families, with safe and inclusive places to learn and work.”
One of the issues raised by Trustee Kathy McDonald is the way information has been provided. During last week’s public meeting, when most of her questions about the board’s progress went unanswered, she asked why updates that were being provided were not in written form.
Trustee Kathy McDonald withdrew from the provincial mediation after the board would not cooperate with her
Joshua and Chair Brad MacDonald only offered a walk-on oral report that trustees and members of the public never got to see prior to the meeting, preventing proper preparation and questioning by trustees and the public.
MacDonald drew further criticism after he released a statement questioning a tweet Lecce sent out voicing concern over the turmoil in the board and reiterating that he demanded swift and effective action, which he had made clear when the review was completed. But MacDonald claimed Lecce's tweet had "demoralized" the board.
PDSB Chair Brad MacDonald
When Kathy McDonald asked the chair last week if he would inform the trustees before sending out statements, he claimed he had, then voted against a failed motion Kathy McDonald brought forward asking for more transparency when the chair communicates with the community. Chair MacDonald contradicted himself, stating he speaks on behalf of all trustees, knowing that his accusatory statement toward Minister Lecce did not represent the position of McDonald or Trustee Nokha Dakroub, who were not consulted before he released the statement.
In Joshua's Monday update, he appears to finally acknowledge the poor handling of the province’s mandated actions to eradicate systemic discrimination within the organization he heads.
“I have made it clear to every staff member, in every role, that each one of us has responsibilities to respond to the Minister of Education's directives and to change practices that have led us here. We own this work, and the only way we disrupt this legacy is by committing to this work together, as a staff, alongside students and community,” Joshua stated in Monday’s release. But he did not take responsibility himself, despite his poor handling of the review and the scrutiny of his performance on persistent issues of discrimination that have plagued the board under his watch, which has been ordered under the ministerial directives.
He provided updates on 7 of the 27 directives laid out by the province, including the hiring of a Superintendent of Equity — the process for which is beginning this week — the hiring of four graduation coaches to work with Black youth, the formation of a steering committee to guide the development of the region’s anti-racism policy, and work being implemented to improve enrolments in coveted regional choice-learning programs. The update provides few details and most of the actions it does outline were formulated by the province in its directives.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua is on the hot seat
Joshua has also failed to explain how the province's required mediation process to meet the directives is moving forward, after McDonald and Dakroub withdrew from the process largely due to his recent unwillingness to answer their questions and because of the lack of cooperation from other trustees. One of the conditions of the mediation under the provincial directives is that a coordinated and cooperative approach be taken by the board.
The ministry review launched late last year after a series of disturbing, racially charged events uncovered concerns among Black students who felt they have not been offered the same opportunities to take part in these programs, which include advanced placements and international baccalaureate programs — things that look very good on college and university applications. Parents raised concerns to the panel of reviewers about a number of barriers to accessing these programs including location and cost.
“These programs are often implemented in schools where the socioeconomic status of families supports them. The ability of individual schools to raise funds, in turn, limits the Board’s interest in implementing regional programs,” the review states. “From an equity of access perspective, socio-economic discrimination operates at the entrance to regional programs. Schools and parents should not have to bear the responsibility to raise funds to operate these programs.”
The review found that while Black students represent about 10 percent of the PDSB student population, they represent, on average, less than 2 percent of the students in these regional choice programs.
Joshua states the board is currently working to improve program planning to eliminate these barriers and reviewing geographical placement to ensure broader access. The PDSB is considering the implementation of subsidies to assist those students for whom cost may be a barrier and using different marketing strategies to attract a diverse complement of students into the specialized streams.
The most significant tangible action included in Joshua’s update is the halting of secondary student suspensions that do not fall into a Ministry of Education coded disciplinary category for specific acts — a practice that was rampant before the provincial review showed it disproportionately impacted Black students. The board will also no longer be suspending or expelling students between Kindergarten and Grade 3.
“Reintegration, repair and restoration must always be prioritized,” Joshua states.
However, the board does not appear too focused on the “repair” aspect of that statement. While new practices will benefit students in the future by eliminating unfair suspensions, the new rules do little to assist students who may have been suspended unfairly in the past.
Black students represent about 10 percent of the student population at PDSB but account for 22.5 percent of suspensions. A startling 78 percent of these suspensions for secondary school students were categorized as “Other” and did not fall into one of the many ministry categories which cover everything from assault, to bullying, to possessing weapons, possession of drugs and alcohol, swearing and vandalism.
The review found that some teachers would go to any length they could to exclude Black students from the classroom, and principals would sometimes find a wide array of reasons to suspend Black students, including wearing a hoodie, wearing hoop earrings or a scarf around their head.
“Black students described an arbitrary disciplinary system that sought them out. Repeatedly we heard about Black students being suspended from school, some as early as junior kindergarten. In response, we requested suspension data disaggregated not only by race, but also by grade. What we learned is alarming,” the provincial review states.
While the move to reform the PDSB’s suspension and expulsion practices is welcomed, it does little to help those students who have already faced disciplinary action, and despite repeated questions from Trustee Kathy McDonald, the board has appeared unwilling to answer how they plan to help these students, who in many cases, can face consequences that could impact their chances at a post-secondary education.
At the April 29 board meeting, McDonald requested clarification on what is being done to help students who might already have been impacted by an unfair suspension, the record on their file and other consequences such as being streamed into pathways that make it more difficult to succeed. The response to her question, included on the meeting’s agenda, merely references the ministry directives, and provides no answer. When she tried to get a further response during the meeting, Joshua, while acknowledging “we can’t do anything in the same way we’ve been doing it,” said he could not answer the question before consulting with the community.
When The Pointer attempted to get further clarification from the board, we were first referred by a spokesperson to the same April 29 board agenda and the archived recording that includes Joshua’s unwillingness to answer.
When asked again, Joshua finally acknowledged to The Pointer Wednesday that the board is reviewing past suspensions to see whether any remedies are required.
“The Board is currently reviewing past suspensions that are categorized as ‘other’ and will be determining which should have been placed in a different ministry-legislated category. Where past suspensions don’t fit ministry-legislated categories, we will need to work with staff to determine if these should be removed,” Joshua states.
The response seems inconsistent with the action announced Monday in the update, which states no student, going forward, will be suspended unless their behavior falls into one of the clearly defined ministerial categories.
It’s unclear why, the same consideration wouldn’t automatically apply to any student in the past who was suspended for a reason marked as “Other” and thus should have the suspension expunged, which is what Trustee McDonald wants to see.
When asked again about rectifying any potential harm that an unfair suspension has already caused a student, Joshua stated, “Our efforts to engage in restorative practices through an anti-oppression lens are our way to rectify consequences that would have been misplaced in the past.
“Our goal is to ensure the success and well-being of every student,” he says.
It’s unclear if this means students who were put into pathways that potentially prevent them from getting certain opportunities as a result of unfair suspensions, might have their situation improved.
Some in the community are not convinced by Joshua’s recent update, viewing the board’s release as part of a continued effort to avoid taking responsibility for the deep-rooted issues within the board.
“I don’t think there’s any indication of them fully understanding what the issues are,” says Alex Battick, a Brampton resident and lawyer who has been following the PDSB turmoil closely. “There’s a clear issue with governance and leadership, I’m quite sure at one point they [the reviewers] make an explicit reference to the fact that leadership is very compromised at the moment, and yet the conversation that continues to be had when it’s distributed from the board around, ‘we’re going to fix the problems in the system’, ‘we’re going to create new policies and new positions’, ‘we’re doing the work we’ve always been committed to doing’ and it’s always just this deflection of responsibility.”
The review and meetings of the board of trustees since, provide evidence that the leadership of PDSB is unable to meet the expectations of the community and the ministry. It has repeatedly failed to address even the most basic issues to protect students and ensure they all receive equal opportunities for educational development in a nurturing environment.
Instead, the meetings of trustees feature members who ignore issues addressed in the scathing provincial review that impact the vast majority of students, such as: how is the board ensuring that its teachers reflect the diversity of the community it serves; or what is the board doing to ensure nepotism doesn’t continue to see visible minorities shut out of teaching and administrative positions?
Trustee Nokha Dakroub has also withdrawn from the mediation, after board members would not cooperate with her
Aside from Trustees Dakroub and McDonald none of the other ten elected officials have asked pointed, detailed and sustained questions or put forward any resolutions to guarantee changes in the admittedly broken system.
The board has had to release statements after the province’s disturbing findings, acknowledging “harm” that it has caused, the existence of “systemic discrimination”, "anti-Black racism" and a formal apology for its continued apathy, which was a condition under the province’s directives.
But community advocates and the two concerned trustees have pointed out that outside the scripted words of remorse, none of the other elected members have done anything, through the formal process of legislating, to address the unfathomable pressesnce of systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism created by the board, which serves a student body that is almost 85 percent non-white.
“Any conversation, any kind of public release from the Peel board or the leaders in the Peel board has to acknowledge their role in the system, they have to acknowledge their errors and what they will do as individuals and as leaders in the community themselves to make these changes, and there’s been no real conversation about that,” Battick states. “At what point are we going to hold people accountable because that’s the only way change will manifest when people start to take accountability for what has been going on for many years.”
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