‘The student comes from a typical Jamaican family where the mother does nothing’: PDSB principal’s comment during a staff meeting
As Peel District School Board faces widespread pressure to finally end its long history of anti-Black racism, a superintendent has sent a letter to staff apologizing for an alarmingly racist comment made by a Mississauga elementary school principal in May 2019, which was not addressed at the time.
In the letter, obtained by The Pointer, the area superintendent, apologizes on behalf of the board for its mishandled response to an egregiously racist remark directed at the mother of a student at the school, which would get many employees in the public or private sector immediately fired.
The letter details comments made by the principal during a meeting of the elementary school’s internal support team, which addresses the progress of those students who need improvement in the classroom.
“Last year, during an ISRC meeting in May 2019, the Principal of… made a racist remark when referring to a student’s family,” the letter states. It goes on to quote the principal saying: “no offense to the Jamaican community, but the student comes from a typical Jamaican family where the mother does nothing, and the grandmother is very much the disciplinarian.”
The principal's racist remarks created a "toxic environment" in the school, according to the letter. It appears the disturbing behaviour has not been properly addressed.
Although the comment was made more than a year ago, the board's and the school’s response were mishandled, without proper "restorative action". On October 22, 2019, the letter explains, the principal issued “a verbal apology” to some staff and also “explained the intent of her comments” in an email. In doing so, the principal repeated the offensive words she had uttered in May of last year, while attempting to apologize to staff later, verbally and by email.
“The board recognizes that the verbal apology and email communication did not repair the harm; instead, they perpetuated further harm as the Principal's apology was dismissive,” the superintendent’s letter states. It’s acknowledged that both the comment and apology were hurtful “as the Principal referred to racist stereotypes to describe a student’s family.”
Despite the clear violation of the "Safe Schools Policy", as detailed in the letter, it's unclear why proper disciplinary action was not taken against the principal. While PDSB would not comment on any disciplinary action, it appears from public records reviewed by The Pointer that the principal remained in the job after the hurtful comments and might retire before the behaviour is properly addressed.
Paula Hilton, a Jamaican-Canadian with a child at a PDSB school and another who has recently graduated, told The Pointer the comments are angering, but do not surprise her.
“I think saying ‘no offense’ means she was being very offensive,” Hilton said of the principal’s comments. “She was aware [that] making that statement was going to cause offense… the issue of racism is not new, so she should know that making a statement like that is going to be taken [as] offensive.”
The letter to staff from the board apologizing is dated June 24, two days ago, and was obtained by The Pointer Friday, more than a year after the incident took place. It includes no details of the disciplinary process that took place for the principal who is not named in the letter, however, the school is identified.
When asked what education, professional development or discipline the principal has since received, PDSB told The Pointer it could not comment on personnel matters.
The Pointer is not disclosing the name of the principal as the board has chosen not to release the information.
Minutes for a recent Peel District School Board meeting reference the principal as one of its retirees at the end of this school year, saying the individual will retire from the job as principal on June 30.
The incident is the second racially insensitive remark by a principal at PDSB to come to light in the last few weeks, amid widespread calls from Black communities to finally reform the deeply troubled board, which was taken over by a provincial supervisor early in the week, who promptly fired former PDSB director Peter Joshua for his failure to address rampant anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination found in a recent sweeping investigation by the province.
Former PDSB director Peter Joshua was dismissed Tuesday
It revealed widespread anti-Black discrimination, including unwarranted suspensions for things like wearing hoodies and hoop earrings, unfair streaming into damaging educational pathways and overt racism in and out of the classroom.
Other forms of routine discrimination, such as Islamophobia, were also highlighted.
At the end of May, Julie DeMaeyer, principal at Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, was temporarily removed from her post pending an investigation after she made a “xenophobic and racist” remark during a virtual staff meeting, according to the board.
According to a half-dozen sources, who did not confirm if they were present at the staff meeting, DeMaeyer said proposed changes to streaming in grades 9 and 10, under provincial directives that came out of its investigation, would lead to some students taking science classes and learning to make bombs.
The principal of Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton is under investigation by the board for a racist remark made in May
As of June 12, the investigation into her remarks was still ongoing.
The two separate incidents come in the context of a blistering fortnight for PDSB. After two damning ministry reviews and months of administrative inaction on the issue of anti-Black racism, action has rapidly unfolded to immediately protect students, whom the board admitted it has harmed.
Last Wednesday, June 17, trustees voted unanimously to ask the Ministry of Education to appoint a supervisor to take over governance. The move effectively means trustees have resigned their power, though they remain in their roles to communicate with constituents.
The following Monday, June 22, Education Minister Stephen Lecce appointed Bruce Rodrigues, Deputy Education Minister, to take over PDSB. The next day Rodrigues fired Joshua.
“That’s Act One: Scene One,” parent and advocate Kola Iluyomade told The Pointer Tuesday, reflecting the attitude of many community members who have demanded sweeping reforms to protect racialized and other marginalized students. Joshua was considered by many as the key barrier to rehabilitating a board that has repeatedly displayed its culture of bias, racism, discrimination and stereotyping.
The latest example is just one more piece of evidence of a toxic culture that many students and parents have known of and experienced for decades.
Asked about the general discipline process, Interim Director of Education Jaspal Gill, said that an investigation takes place, sometimes with an external investigator. “When there is a report about inappropriate conduct at any workplace setting, the employee’s supervisor investigates, makes a finding of fact, and determines next steps,” Gill wrote in an email. “In some cases, an external investigator is brought in. When this happens with a principal, support from the Director’s Office and Human Resources are also included.”
The Mississauga school whose principal made the blatantly racist remark serves children from Kindergarten to Grade 5, setting the path for their educational and career development, which for many Black students is deeply damaged by PDSB.
Protestors marched to PDSB headquarters on June 17
“Systemic racism itself is such that the perpetrators themselves may or may not even be aware because of the biases that they carry,” Idris Orughu, a leading anti-Black racism advocate in Peel, told The Pointer, after details of the letter were shared with him. “It tells us too that the board has to do more by leading, from the director to the various superintendents and leadership, [to show] that behaviour like that can’t be tolerated.”
Advocate Idris Orughu says discrimination at PDSB is part of a larger structural problem in the education system
“It is damaging, it is hurtful, but it’s not surprising to know,” he added.
The racist comment was made during an In-School Resource Committee (ISRC) meeting. Each school has its own version of an ISRC, attended regularly by school staff as well as broader board employees such as social workers, speech pathologists or a psycho-educational consultant.
They address children in need of additional support and discuss guidance decisions to tweak their education.
According to a memo on PDSB’s website, “Each school has their own process for referral to the ISRC… With parent permission, the student's strengths and challenges are discussed along with the strategies that have been implemented to date.”
Recommendations from the ISRC can be elevated to other external committees that have the power to stream students and make significant changes to their educational future, often with a negative cascading effect that can remove them from the regular curriculum and place them in vocational pathways that greatly curtail opportunities, such as university.
“Generally, these meetings provide a space to discuss supports for students,” Gill said. “There are no decisions made about streaming at a junior school ISRC. There may be recommendations prepared about secondary course selection at a middle school ISRC.”
Almost 84 percent of PDSB’s students are racialized, but are overseen by a predominantly white teaching and administrative staff. Ministry reports, among other sources, have raised concerns around the internal biases staff have against Black and other racialized students that can lead to negative educational outcomes.
There are a variety of reasons children in Grade 5 and below could be discussed at the ISRC meetings. At a young age, children may have different concepts of sharing, working together or what discipline is demanded from them by the school.
The purpose of the ISRC, when it works, is to deal with those issues and provide the support children need to thrive. Internal biases and stereotypes based on race, such as the comment made in May of last year by a school principal who disparaged the mother of a student and revealed potentially damaging bias against the family, and the entire Jamaican-Canadian community, reflect the difficulties generations of Black children at PDSB have described.
“Despite all of the discussion and spotlight on the board and what the board needs to do … we continue to see that it’s not trickling down and so there are teachers, there are principals, there are administrators who are exacting harm continuously,” Danielle Dowdy, a member of the Jamaican Canadian Association, told The Pointer.
“Enough is just enough, we’re not going to put up with this anymore,” she added.
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