PDSB and its controversial director drop legal threat against Black advocates as new provincial supervisor prepared to order the retreat
Advocates and parents in Peel have waited years for change.
Members of the Black community have spoken out time after time about the horrors of systemic discrimination at Peel District School Board. Generations of children were treated like second-class citizens. Their calls for help fell on deaf ears.
Last November, they finally received a response. Education Minister Stephen Lecce ordered a provincial review of the board, after examples of habitual anti-Black racism and other forms of ingrained discrimination became too numerous and shocking to ignore. The findings, published in March, revealed what many had always known – anti-Black racism and Islamophobia were rampant and indifference was just as typical. Teachers, principals and senior administrators for decades had convinced themselves that everything was fine. Of course, they were overwhelmingly white, in a school system whose students are now overwhelmingly not white.
Even armed with the evidence of the provincial investigation, the wheels of reform moved slowly, as the same entrenched attitudes of denial and deflection among board leaders ruled the day.
The very administration found so lacking in the ministry’s review was put in charge of its own reconciliation. Director of Education Peter Joshua, Chair Brad MacDonald and the board of trustees dragged their heels, publicly showing little change in attitude to signal they had learnt from the past and were ready to rehabilitate themselves.
A second review was ordered; the findings were as bad, if not worse, than the original.
PDSB Director Peter Joshua
Finally, on Wednesday, June 17, trustees voted unanimously to call in a ministry appointed supervisor to take over governance of the board. The supervisor will, essentially, act instead of the board.
The historic move appears to have finally opened the floodgates for change with announcements coming thick and fast. On Monday, two major developments took place for advocates and families based in Peel.
Minister Lecce began the day by announcing the supervisor who will take control of the beleaguered board, naming Deputy Minister of Education Bruce Rodrigues to the role. Hours later, Lecce addressed legal action by PDSB aimed at Black advocacy groups, which The Pointer revealed on Friday, saying the new supervisor would put a stop to the litigation.
Almost simultaneously, Joshua, confirmed the board was putting a stop to its legal action aimed at six different Black advocacy groups that use Twitter as a platform to express their opposition to the board’s harmful culture.
After The Pointer reported on the court documents that outlined PDSB’s claims against the groups, there was a massive public backlash over the weekend, and the board subsequently did a 180, while the ministry had already prepared to pull the plug on the threatening move aimed at Black advocates, once it took over the board.
The Notice of Application filed by PDSB, Joshua, Vice Chair David Green and two other senior staff against Twitter, was to obtain identifying information of account holders to pursue legal action against them (read the full story here).
“We have a binding agreement to end the litigation involving all applicants,” Joshua told The Pointer by email Monday, after explaining on Friday why the legal threat was launched. It claimed the Twitter groups had shared confidential board information and made “false and defamatory” comments about the applicants. “We are awaiting a formal order concluding the proceeding, but terms to end the litigation were agreed upon over the weekend,” Joshua said, in a sudden change of heart.
Following strong community backlash over the weekend, the PDSB has reversed its decision to pursue legal action against several Black advocacy groups in Peel.
After walking back the litigation, the board’s director offered no apology or explanation of what he believes has changed. None of the active accounts ceased tweeting after the litigation was launched nor did they change their tone.
Alex Battick, a Peel lawyer retained to represent the Twitter accounts in question, says he is pleased the legal action is being ended, but that it was “only the latest in a series of attempts to intimidate” Peel’s Black communities.
In an open letter, shared with The Pointer, Battick listed the calling of police to a board meeting in February when parents and community leaders attempted to address long standing concerns around discriminatory practices, trespass letters against Black advocates and a complaint lodged against an educator who voiced criticism of the board, as previous examples of threatening behavior by the public school system. “This is how systemic anti-Black racism works,” he wrote.
“It is a series of mechanisms involving power and authority that are relied on to enact and perpetuate the silencing of Black voices. Often, this is framed or presented as a kind of obliviousness, all the while failing to understand and appreciate the legacy of anti-Black racism and roles in perpetuating it. But it is as deliberate as choosing to hire a top law firm to litigate against a historically disenfranchised community.”
Peel-based lawyer Alex Battick
Battick, writing on behalf of the Twitter accounts, said that the board’s misguided priorities remain a worry for the community.
“What disturbs us the most about the events to date, is the lack of priority by the PDSB leadership; instead of centering students in their decision-making, it is ego that has prevented much needed resources for schools that need higher budgets for repairs, additional funding for teaching assistants and greater access to funds to support community programs for families in need,” he wrote.
He made it clear that PDSB’s withdrawal of its legal action, in the face of public backlash and the looming action of a provincial supervisor, still leaves many unanswered questions.
Was the decision to pursue legal action unilateral? Will there be any accountability of senior staff behind the decision? If taxpayer dollars were spent on the action, will they be reimbursed? Can the community be confident Joshua and the board will not pursue legal action against them in the future?
No statement on these questions raised by The Pointer Friday and now by Battick has yet been shared by PDSB.
“To rebuild the relationship between the Black community and the PDSB, we look to the new leadership for transparency, accountability and a commitment to equitable practices from top-down,” he added. “The community cannot begin to build trust in its school board if it fears the very members entrusted with ensuring the success of their children.”
Tweeting about the case, Minister Lecce shared his opposition to the board’s decision to pursue legal action.
“I have asked the new supervisor to have #PDSB immediately withdraw from litigation against community members to begin the process of driving change & meaningful engagement with those affected,” he said. “We cannot silence community. In fact, we need more community in these moments.”
After naming Rodrigues to the role of PDSB’s supervisor, likely until at least the end of the year, Lecce outlined some of the expectations.
"We expect all schools and classrooms in the province to be safe and inclusive. For far too long, this has not been the case at the Peel District School Board. From day one, I said that if the PDSB does not act swiftly and completely to counter racism and positively change the culture within our schools, then the government will act,” Lecce wrote.
Bruce Rodrigues, the deputy minister of education at the province, has been appointed as the supervisor for the PDSB.
The appointment of someone so close to the ministry and Lecce himself means the Government of Ontario will be taking a particularly hands on approach at the board. Rodrigues, the Deputy Minister, has an established relationship with Lecce and has been instrumental in shaping the government’s education policy, illustrating the priority PDSB’s rehabilitation is for the Ministry of Education.
“The appointment of a supervisor will allow the PDSB to get back on track and undertake the necessary actions to eliminate the practices and policies underpinning discrimination and inequities,” Lecce said.
Prior to his appointment as Deputy Minister of Education, a non-political role, Rodrigues had served as director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He also worked as associate director of education at the Catholic board in Waterloo and before that as a superintendent.
“He has put students of all abilities at the heart of his work and public service,” Lecce added.
One thing that remains unclear, is if Rodrigues will agree with the central demand of some of the most influential groups in Peel, representing a diverse range of communities, who have publicly stated that Director Joshua, the man behind so much of the board’s inexcusable behaviour, including the legal threat against Black advocates, must go.
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