PDSB trustees who harmed visible minority students want to regain control of board
Following the Province’s drastic step of appointing a supervisor to take over the dysfunctional Peel District School Board after years of systemic discrimination against its own students, the same trustees who ignored the issue now want Queen’s Park to hand back control of the troubled organization.
Nine PDSB trustees signed a letter asking the government to cease its direct oversight, stating it has gone on much longer than they “anticipated or desired.”
Bruce Rodrigues was brought in by the provincial government more than a year ago, to take over governance of the board from elected trustees, who, according to the ministry of education, third-party advisors and local stakeholders, had no interest in protecting students subjected to decades of harm within a school system found to be systemically racist.
Two separate probes led by the provincial government found evidence of widespread anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and other forms of systemic discrimination and a culture of apathy among the mostly-white educators and trustees.
It was no surprise to local advocates who for years had pointed out incidents and patterns of harm against visible minority students by a board that is widely mismatched. While almost 85 percent of its students are not white, about two-thirds of its teaching and administrative staff are white. One of the white trustees, William Davies, openly used a racist, derogatory term for a school with a large Black student body, and another, Sue Lawton, defended her colleague while claiming he never used the term. She shut down parents at a board meeting who attempted to address the disturbing behaviour, claiming Davies never used the term. He later admitted to calling McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton, ‘McCriminal’, but Lawton never apologized to those parents who she misled and silenced.
The ugly incident was just one in a series that saw trustees openly attack Black parents for simply trying to protect their children.
After The Province launched a formal investigation in 2019, the evidence of systemic discrimination within a board that refused to change with the demographic shift across Peel, was overwhelming.
And the majority of the PDSB’s elected trustees, responsible for setting the culture, were clearly at the centre of the problem.
Rodrigues was brought in by the ministry of education after its probe, which resulted in 27 directives aimed at dismantling systemic racism within the board. Because many were not being properly completed by trustees who openly admitted they did not accept The Province’s approach, they were sidelined so Rodrigues could carry out the crucial work to eradicate systemic racism. Since his role began, small steps by the board have been achieved, but local advocates say more needs to be done.
The Pointer recently reported a long list of concerns raised by Peel anti-racism advocates that have not been addressed by the board: Black graduation coaches still have not been introduced to the community; the board tried to hire teachers using pre-review policies found to exclude visible minority educators; while other directives around a range of equity initiatives such as de-streaming have yet to be properly implemented.
An illustration of how deeply entrenched racist views have become among PDSB educators was revealed in a particularly alarming incident following the de-streaming directive from The Province. The practice is meant to ensure Black and other visible minority students are no longer streamed into academic paths that cut them off from future opportunities such as college or university.
When the directive was sent out last year, in May the principal of Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, which has a large Muslim student body, said during a staff meeting that it would lead to some people making bombs if they were allowed to take certain science classes.
The Pointer was told by multiple sources that many staff at the school were shocked. The principal was put on leave by the board.
Another ugly incident also caused irreparable harm to students and revealed how dangerous it was for Black families in the PDSB.
A letter of apology from the board obtained by The Pointer detailed comments made by a 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. The Pointer was told by sources that little was done to address the shocking comment when the principal made the racist remark and it was only properly dealt with after The Province stepped in. The apology letter was sent more than a year after the principal used the racist stereotype.
But now, 9 of the 12 trustees, including the same ones who obstructed efforts to address systemic racism in the board, believe it's time to take control again without Rodrigues.
On Friday, trustees Carrie Andrews, Susan Benjamin, Stan Cameron, Robert Crocker, William Davies, David Green, Sue Lawton, Brad MacDonald and John Marchant, signed an open letter to Minister of Education Stephen Lecce asking for Rodrigues to be removed from his position.
Trustees Nokha Dakroub, Kathy McDonald and Balbir Sohi did not sign the letter.
The five-paragraph letter that was shared with The Pointer is simple: the 9 trustees believe Rodrigues has overstayed his welcome on the board.
“We the undersigned, nine of the twelve democratically elected PDSB Trustees, now ask the Minister to withdraw the Supervisor and promptly return us to the roles which Peel voters chose us to fulfill,” the letter reads.
Under the supervisor some policy changes have been made, including the hiring of new Director of Education Rashmi Swarup. The letter states, “Trustees can meet and elect a chair and vice chair before the school year.”
It’s clear, the nine trustees want Rodrigues gone, but both of the members who did almost all the heavy lifting on the inside to eradicate systemic racism, while routinely being attacked by some of the other trustees, say The Province needs to stay until the directives are met.
“I absolutely would not sign the letter. We are not there,” Kathy McDonald told The Pointer.
According to the trustee, the way the letter was handled, asking her to rush her signature on it, is another telling sign the fractured board is not prepared to listen to voices demanding change.
“Even how the process of this letter went out, shows and confirms the findings of Arleen Huggins’ report,” McDonald said, referring to The Province’s follow-up review last year which found trustees were not taking the 27 directives seriously. “The fact that the board is so fractured, they discard and have no time for minority voices or dissenting voices.”
In the past few years more coverage of board meetings and issues surrounding racism within the organization have revealed the depth of the troubling culture inside the PDSB. Trustee Nokha Dakroub believes to make meaningful changes for students, work on equity needs to be a central commitment.
“We've just started doing some real work on equity, and we've just started getting into some meaningful policy changes, and the system-wide changes,” she says. “In order to transform an organization from top to bottom, it doesn't happen overnight.”
Even with the small changes that have occurred over the past year under Rodrigues, Dakroub believes he is the reason the work has been getting done.
Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub have been tireless advocates for many racialized students and staff.
“It's concerning, because I don't feel that in the past year we've had much, much success working together as a group,” Dakroub said. “Really our only success has been working through Bruce [Rodrigues.]”
The Pointer asked PDSB’s brand new Director of Education, Rashmi Swarup, if she believes Rodigues should be removed by the ministry so trustees can regain their governance roles.
“I’m aware of the situation but I cannot comment,” Swarup told The Pointer in an interview Tuesday.
Swarup says she is prepared to tackle systematic racism head on, and her career “has always been about an unwavering commitment to equity, inclusion, and to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression.”
When asked if she will be staying with PDSB for the foreseeable future, after former director Colleen Russell-Rawlins, hired specifically to implement the 27 directives, unexpectedly left this summer to head Toronto’s public board, Swarup did not commit to any timeline for her tenure.
“I live in this community and I am now working here. And for me, I'm committed to students, staff, and families here. So that is my commitment.”
Both McDonald and Dakroub told The Pointer working with Rodrigues has been effective, with policy changes slowly getting implemented, and they feel like their voices are finally being heard.
Their voices reflect the concerns of many among the almost 85 percent of students who identify as visible minorities.
Meanwhile, many of those trustees who signed the open letter calling for Rodrigues to step down have openly rejected The Province’s involvement and its policies. At an emergency meeting in May of last year, shortly before Rodrigues took over, some trustees defended the practice of streaming, even though The Province’s evidence clearly showed many visible minority students were unfairly cut off from crucial educational opportunities because of the practice. Trustee Robert Crocker called the move to end streaming “political.”
After Trustee Brad Macdonald (functioning as the chair at the time) publicly issued an apology, after the province’s initial investigation, on behalf of the board and an admission of “harm” done to Black students, he later made a mockery of his gesture. He told Huggins, the lawyer hired to follow-up to find out if the 27 directives were being implemented, including the issuing of an apology: “[The] community has been after us, it is against our human rights to force us to apologize.”
Effectively, the chair of the organization issued a false claim, publicly, when he apologized, instead believing Black communities were “after us” and that he was being forced to say sorry.
In a scathing letter sent last year to Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce obtained by The Pointer, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath made it clear that the majority of current trustees could no longer be trusted. Referencing the findings of The Province’s investigation of the troubled board, she pointed to a history of pain suffered by the Black community in Peel because of the harmful behaviour of some leaders.
“The review highlighted the board’s failure to meaningfully implement the We Rise Together strategy, which was supposed to support Black male student achievement,” Horwath wrote. “Astonishingly, there has been a historical, collective absence of a call to action to stop the harmful effects of anti-Black racism and to take responsibility for the poor outcomes of too many of our Black children.”
Demonstrating a lack of trust in the current board and its ability to self-evaluate, Horwath called for even stronger provincial directives. Referencing the current 27 mandatory steps handed to PDSB by Minister Lecce under the probe he ordered in 2019, she said even stricter rules are required.
“The ministerial directives that you issued do not address this failure in leadership at all,” the letter to Ford and Lecce continued. “There are no consequences for the violence that board leadership allowed to be perpetrated against Black students and their families. Instead, you have tasked the very people who allowed anti-Black racism to continue in Peel schools with its remedy.”
That was before the trustees were eventually stripped of their power and Rodrigues was brought in by the ministry to take over.
Now, the open letter shows many of the same trustees at the root of the problem believe they will be able to function in the best interest of students without the supervision of the ministry.
Trustee Stan Cameron believes progress on the ministry directives was manipulated by trustees Dakroub and McDonald, who pulled out of the mandatory board mediation process after the rest of the board members were allegedly stalling the process prior to being stripped of their responsibility.
“Because two trustees won't participate, the other 10 trustees cannot participate at the governance table,” Cameron told The Pointer in an email. “By the Minister's staff dictating that all Trustees must comply and attend mandatory mediation as a Directive, they effectively put in place a way for any one (or two) Trustees to refuse the order, while making the Directive unattainable and a return to governance more difficult.”
Cameron says he signed the recent open letter so that all trustees could return to their positions and, “present motions, pass budgets, participate in committees designed to serve our students, families, and staff, and help govern the board with advice for, and questions of, the Director.”
According to the letter and those who signed it, their process to go back to the governance table cannot be done with Rodigues in place.
But there is little trust in those trustees who have displayed their unwillingness to do the things Cameron says he wants to do.
After Trustee William Davies faced criticism for calling McCrimmon Middle School, “McCriminal” in late 2019, silence on the issue lasted months until McDonald raised it at a meeting.
Then Lawton, who was the acting chair of the meeting, shut down discussions surrounding the comment, repeatedly saying to the room full of Black community advocates that the incident never happened, and denying those in attendance the right to speak to the matter.
PDSB’s automatic response to the racist remark was to deny and deflect and protect board members. Lawton did not explain why she misled parents, claiming the comment was never made.
After members of the public demanded answers during the meeting, Lawton said, “We have no record … of that comment.” She then told another member of the public, who asked about Davies’ remark and what would be done about it, “I’m not going to answer that question … because it never happened.”
Trustee William Davies (above) was criticized by many for a racist remark in late 2019.
(The Pointer files)
It wasn’t until months later that Davies admitted that he did make the racially insensitive remark and apologized, stating he did not realize how hurtful it was.
“I apologize again for the hurt that it has caused members of the Peel community… Although I never intended it as a racist comment, I have learned that the reference could be perceived as not only offensive, but racist,” Davies previously told The Pointer in an email.
Both Lawton and Davies signed the open letter to remove Rodrigues.
The board has a history of attempting to silence those who speak out demanding change.
Former director of education Peter Joshua — who was fired after his failure to adequately address systemic discrimination within the board — and other senior staff at the PDSB as well as Trustee David Green (who also signed the recent open letter asking Rodrigues to step down) took legal action against anonymous social media accounts in 2020 that were highlighting PDSB’s issues with anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination within the board. The legal action initiated by the since-fired former director was eventually withdrawn.
Rodrigues would issue an apology on behalf of the board for the heavy-handed legal threat, labelling it as an act of discrimination.
“The initiating of this Application was discriminatory, anti-Black and a deliberate attempt to silence community members' public participation,” Rodrigues wrote. “The Peel District School Board extends a sincere apology to Kola Iluyomade as well as the holders of the following Twitter accounts: @peelblackyouth1; @WeRiseTogether1; @AdvocacyPeel; @MinistryPeel; @HomelsPeel; and @PeelBlackParent. The holders of the above Twitter accounts wish to remain anonymous, and the Peel District School Board respects their wishes.”
Iluyomade was a leading advocate in the Black community and was often a target of the board. He passed away earlier this summer.
Sue Lawton (above) repeatedly denied Will Davies made the racist remark until Davies admitted to the media he did.
(The Pointer files)
As advocates continued the battle to address racism within PDSB and the board of trustees, a February 2020 meeting showcased just how fractured the relationship between community and board members was.
Approximately 45 minutes into the meeting, trustee Dakroub tried to introduce a motion that would block PDSB staff from escalating non-emergency situations that result in “frequent and unnecessary interactions” between students and Peel police.
The motion was to rethink cooperation with police in situations where minors under investigation could consult with a parent or guardian prior to contact with law enforcement.
Before the motion was announced, PDSB chair Brad MacDonald ruled it out of order on the grounds it violated existing arrangements with Peel police. Even when Dakroub insisted on splitting the motion so each item could be debated separately, MacDonald refused to budge.
“At this point in time I have the option to call the whole motion out of order,” said MacDonald, whose decision was upheld by a majority of the board following an appeal by Dakroub.
This upset many members of the community who vocalized their concerns over dismantling the motion, causing chair MacDonald to call order multiple times before adjourning the meeting and moving the board into another room.
Audio recorded during the private session revealed Trustee Green's claim to be in mortal danger after an encounter with a resident.
“I’m honestly very nervous at the moment. I’m shaking,” Green said. “I’m in fear of my life at the moment. I’m very intimidated. My whole body’s shaking.”
David Green (above) was very shaken after a board meeting ended in a closed session in February 2020.
(The Pointer files)
In a statement provided by the PDSB, MacDonald, while not naming Green, cited his claims as justification for calling the police to the meeting.
“During [the] private session, a Trustee indicated that he felt there was a risk to his personal safety given an interaction he had with a member of the public. In response, I directed staff to engage security and to call Peel Regional Police to ensure that Trustees got home safely,” MacDonald said in the statement.
Advocates who attended the meeting later told The Pointer no implicit threats were made by community members. Tim Vining, one of the audience members at the time, said the decision to call police evoked personal memories of repressive treatment toward African Americans during the height of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s.
“The people in the room were parents and teachers, and just calling the police shows they don’t even want to talk to you,” Vining said.
Shortly after being appointed as supervisor, Rodrigues issued an apology on behalf of the board, admitting that the decision to call the police following the meeting, and issue a trespass notice to citizen-activist Idris Orughu, was wrong and represented an act of discrimination and anti-Black racism.
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.
In March 2020, the ministry of education released its 27 directives the board must implement to move forward on eliminating systemic racism. Instead of making equitable and meaningful change, the board used the directives as a box to check. Unable to face criticism from outside sources or understand the seriousness and reason behind the directives, trustees began to voice their unwillingness to comply.
Responding to media reports that mediation on the directives had stalled, Minister Lecce tweeted saying he would not tolerate “continued inaction.”
“I couldn’t be more clear on my expectations for real change to take hold in this community. I want to assure families, we won’t sit idle,” he said.
The tweet was posted at 3:29 p.m. on April 22, last year. Five hours later, at 8:32 p.m., PDSB tweeted a link to a statement from board chair MacDonald, and vice chair Green, saying they were “demoralized” by Lecce’s comment.
“In the tweet, the Minister of Education indicated that our Board’s inaction will not be tolerated,” the statement said. “This has left Trustees, staff and members of the community feeling demoralized. We are left to wonder what the tweet means, as we have clearly followed the directives and met every deadline to date, including the commitment on March 24, 2020, from all Trustees to participate in the mediation.”
At the time of the tweet from the board, it should have known the last statement was misleading, as Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub had already made clear, that despite their commitment in March along with all the other members, once they sat down at the mediation table, other trustees clearly didn’t want to cooperate with them to properly implement the directives.
Directive 19 (to end streaming of students into different educational pathways based on perceived academic ability in grades 9 and 10) was met with open contempt.
Several white trustees spoke out in favour of streaming, claiming any move to end the practice would not be successful.
“I acknowledge this project comes directly from the ministry and we’re bound to follow it, but I don’t support it,” Trustee Robert Crocker said. “I warn my trustee colleagues the ideology driving this is political, not educational.”
He warned that the bar will “be set lower” in subjects if certain students are allowed to take them, instead of being removed and put into streamed pathways with less challenging work, a traditional practice that has done particular harm to Black students. Crocker’s comments make it clear that he does not agree with the results of the ministry’s investigation of the board, which found, among other things, that Black students are disproportionately streamed, often because white educators have biases against them.
When Dakroub and McDonald pulled out of the mediation process required under the 27 directives, the process failed. They told The Pointer shortly after, PDSB is continuing a longstanding pattern of deflection whenever it has been confronted about a culture of systemic discrimination fostered by the administration.
This led Lecce to appoint lawyer Arleen Huggins as an independent investigator to audit PDSB’s compliance with the directives. In May 2020 she filed her report and the ministry published it in June of last year.
The findings in the 26-page report confirmed PDSB had wasted weeks since the review was published on infighting, deflection and denial. The review was summarized by chair MacDonald’s claim that the Black community was after the trustees and it was against their human rights to be forced to apologize, raising questions about any willingness by the board to even accept it had a problem.
Huggins wrote in her investigation report into the board’s compliance with the ministry’s directives, that “I have determined that the collective Board and the Director’s Office is lacking both the ability and capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, the will, to address the findings in the Report, and therefore future non-compliance with the Minister’s binding Directions is probable.”
In asking the Education Ministry to install a supervisor to take over governance, the board admitted it could not do its job. It acknowledged what the Huggins report found – PDSB lacks the skills, motivation and understanding to eradicate the anti-Black racism and other discrimination that permeates its leadership.
Now, a year later, nine trustees believe Rodrigues should be removed so their autonomy can be regained. McDonald and Dakroub believe true action to finally eradicate systemic discrimination within the PDSB must be seen before Rodrigues steps down from his supervisory position.
Email: [email protected]
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