PDSB supervisor apologizes to parent activist for ‘acts of discrimination and anti-Black racism’ of previous administration
Over the summer, the Peel District School Board underwent two important changes. Its trustees were sidelined by a provincially appointed supervisor, stripping them of any decision making power, while at the same time, a new Director of Education was brought in.
The new leadership team, led by Supervisor Bruce Rodrigues and Interim Director Colleen Russell-Rawlins, has a mountainous to-do list.
They came in tasked with mending the organization’s history of anti-Black racism, an onerous task by itself. But a return to the classroom just as a second wave of COVID-19 breaks across Ontario has meant they also find themselves juggling an ever-changing back-to-school plan.
Attempting to close one of the unfinished chapters in PDSB’s troubled past, Rodrigues issued an apology Wednesday. Referring to events in February, the supervisor said he was sorry for Chair Brad MacDonald, Vice Chair David Green and the board of trustees’ decision to call the Peel Regional Police in response to a parent activist, Idris Orughu.
The PDSB has issued an apology on behalf of Chair Brad MacDonald (top), Vice Chair David Green and the board of trustees after a trespass notice was issued to a parent activist.
Rodrigues also apologized for a subsequent decision to issue a trespass letter to Orughu. The board, and former Director Peter Joshua, maintained the trespass order until it was eventually withdrawn in June without explanation or apology.
“The issuing of the notice of trespass and contacting the Peel Regional Police were acts of discrimination and anti-Black racism,” the supervisor wrote. He added that acknowledging past mistakes would “enable reconciliation” for the embattled organization.
Orughu told The Pointer the apology represented “a better day” and highlighted the difference being made by the new leadership. He was pleased to see the board, responsible for some 155,000 students, admit to one of its mistakes. “What it shows is the current board leadership understands the hurt and the harm that was done … it gives me additional assurance that the board is ready and willing to turn a different page,” he added.
The symbolism of PDSB, the institution, issuing an apology is important. But, as sidelined trustees supposedly work to demonstrate they are learning the lessons of anti-Black racism, personal apologies have a role to play too.
“To say ‘we are sorry,’ it does a lot,” Orughu said. “[You say] ‘we realize what we did was wrong, how can we fix it?’”
Parent activist Idris Orughu
“I think we're heading in the right direction, I think we're leading by example,” Trustee Kathy McDonald, who fought against the trespass letter, told The Pointer. “We are modelling what we teach kids every day, because every day in school, when kids do something wrong, we say [they must] apologize.”
Noticeably absent from the apology were the names of Green and MacDonald, the Vice Chair and Chair at the time the trespass letter was issued. The statement, welcomed by Orughu and others, was signed only by Rodrigues. The supervisor is working to put the past behind the board by atoning for old mistakes — mistakes he did not make.
The alleged incident that led to the arrival of police and the trespass letter being issued took place in February. The Peel Regional Police were called to the board’s headquarters after Black parents protested the handcuffing of a six-year-old Black girl by police at a Peel school. PDSB alleged that, during that meeting, Orughu made threatening remarks either to board members or specifically to Green, who subsequently filed a complaint with the police.
Despite PDSB meetings being recorded, audio from the meeting does not include threats made by Orughu to Green. It does feature an exchange where Orughu tells Green that “you will see me at election time.”
In June, the Peel Regional Police confirmed to The Pointer officers had investigated a complaint made by Green and found that “no criminal offense had occurred”. A spokesperson said the determination had been made in March and the case had been resolved ever since.
Repeated attempts from Orughu to understand why the letter, which banned him from all PDSB property until June 2021, had been issued and how it could be appealed. His efforts were supported by Trustees McDonald and Nokha Dakroub, but were repeatedly shut down. On various occasions, Chair MacDonald ruled questions about the trespass notice out of order or ended debate on the matter during meetings, leaving the parent activist frustrated.
It was behavior independent investigator Arleen Huggins described as “silencing.”
Trustees Kathy McDonald (left) and Nokha Dakroub fought against the trespass notice issued to Orughu.
“The Chair and Vice Chair’s determinations as to the appropriateness of questions coming from Trustees can reasonably be seen as silencing mechanisms; relevant issues are mischaracterized as ‘personal issues’ and left unaddressed,” Huggins, a lawyer, wrote in her June report into PDSB.
MacDonald did not respond to a request for comment directed to his PDSB email and phone. Green said he had learned about the apology “just like the rest of the public” and would need to speak to Rodrigues. He did not respond to questions asking if he supported the move or if he would apologize himself.
When it comes to apologizing, PDSB has a track record.
In April, the board issued an apology admitting to “systemic racism”. It was an action mandated by the Ministry of Education as one of 27 binding directives for the board to follow after a damning Ministry review published in March found anti-Black racism and discrimination were rampant at the board. Activists and community members saw the apology as a document filled with platitudes and hollow words; a gesture not matched by action.
Their scepticism proved to be well founded.
In June, The Pointer revealed PDSB and several senior figures, including Green, were attached to a legal action aiming to unmask the identity of Black parent activist Twitter accounts in Peel. The action was swiftly withdrawn after outcry, including from Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but it showed a board not practising the lessons it preached.
A quote from MacDonald in Huggins’s June report further suggested a board unwilling to change. “It is against our human rights to force us to apologize,” the Chair at the time of the report is quoted as saying.
Previous coverage of PDSB in The Pointer:
For some, the actions of MacDonald and others are symptoms of a far wider problem. Systemic issues can be traced all the way back to the legislation that governs Ontario’s schools, they say.
“Mr. Orughu’s experience is but one in a long list of events where the school board and its representatives across Ontario have wielded their power against community members. Few of these experiences end justly,” Alex Battick, a Peel based lawyer representing Orughu, said in an open letter. He called on the province to amend the Education Act to reflect a need for equity and the importance of “accountable school board governance.”
Speaking at Queen’s Park, Lecce said he was pleased the apology had been issued. He described it as an important step among a “myriad” of challenges. He did not address the Education Act itself, but previously told The Pointer he would consider changing it in the future without making any firm commitments.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce
Some fear that without changes to the Education Act and apologies from those responsible at the time, progress at PDSB may be tied to Rodrigues himself. His eventual departure could spell an end to improvements being made.
“For us right now we are praying for Mr. Lecce to allow Bruce Rodrigues to go until election time so we have an opportunity to get those people out because they are not repentant,” Orughu added. “If he does not [stay]… the cycle will come [again], because now they’re going to come back with vengeance.”
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