A year into the job, PDSB’s director making progress on initiatives to end systemic discrimination
Rashmi Swarup arrived at the Peel District School Board in the midst of a crisis.
In August 2021 the school board’s trustees had just issued a letter to the Province asking to have supervisor Bruce Rodrigues removed. He was put in place when the Province’s Ministry of Education determined widespread harm was being done to students in the country’s third largest school board. Following an extensive review by the ministry PDSB was found to be systemically discriminatory toward visible minority students, who make up about 85 percent of the student body. It issued 27 directives in response to two damning audits that unearthed evidence of systemic racism inside the organization.
Colleen Russell-Rawlins was brought in after former director of education Peter Joshua was fired for ignoring the problems and refusing to hold board leaders accountable including the majority of elected trustees who fostered a poisonous culture, with his help. Then in the summer of 2021 Russell-Rawlins unexpectedly announced her departure to lead Toronto’s public board, leaving community advocates, families, staff and students on shaky ground.
In 2019, community members protested the culture inside the PDSB which had harmed Black students and families for decades.
(The Pointer file photo)
Swarup was brought in to replace Russell-Rawlins and finally put the toxic board on the right track. Her plan was to create connections with the Peel District School Board community and prioritize their concerns.
“Listening to their voices is very, very important to me,” she said previously. “But then when you listen, what do you bring back? And how do you kind of connect the dots to figure out what is the next step?”
After one year on the job, Swarup has done just that.
Her appointment to the job in itself was an accomplishment. Swarup is the first South Asian woman to lead a school board in Ontario, something she does not take lightly.
“Identity plays a big role in leadership,” she told The Pointer in a recent interview, marking her first anniversary in the job. “Given the diversity that is in Peel District School board, and in Ontario, and Canada, I think it's important to articulate that as well, and bring your whole self into the role.”
She hopes by highlighting her own background people from other marginalized communities will be empowered to see they too can break the glass ceiling.
PDSB has struggled in particular with anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. The investigation by the Province showcased a number of instances where Black students were treated, broadly, much more harshly than others. They were suspended for wearing hoodies and hoop earrings while white students didn’t even face discipline when doing the same. The review found Black students were streamed into ‘applied classes’ away from more ‘academic’ opportunities. At PDSB, Black students make up roughly 10 percent of the student population. In 2018-19, they made up 21.7 percent of those in applied streams, more than twice their representation. They also accounted for 25.4 percent of locally developed credit courses (academically below applied classes and aimed at teaching life skills).
The behaviour of senior educators also illustrated the harm Black students faced.
A principal at Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton made a “xenophobic and racist” remark in May 2020. It was in response to ending streaming which the principal said at a meeting with teachers would allow some students at the school, which has a large Muslim student body, to take science classes and learn to make bombs.
The blatantly Islamophobic comment was made about a school, like so many in Peel, with a majority racialized population, and in an area with a significant Muslim population.
Another principal made a jaw-dropping racist remark in a meeting, describing Jamaican mothers as lazy, to the shock of many in attendance. The board moved swiftly to remove her.
A follow-up review by an independent investigator, Arleen Huggins, found trustees were not following the Province’s directives to eradicate systemic behaviour, while continuing to harm Black communities.
These messages of inequality have been shared by Peel residents for decades but it wasn’t until the community mobilized under strong advocates that change was forced on the board.
Internationally the Black Lives Matter movement was a strong catalyst for people to understand the issues plaguing Black communities. Mass protests occurred after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in June 2020. The horrifying incident caught on video outraged people and brought more awareness to the broader public about how Black communities have been treated by institutions, including those in education.
Locally, Peel Region advocate Kola Iluyomade led the charge in organizing protests at PDSB headquarters and marches in June 2020. He passed away unexpectedly in June last year, just as the most substantial changes started to take shape in PDSB.
Combatting racist culture can be changed with firm policies and a commitment to uphold them. Advocates who previously spoke to The Pointer wanted the 27 directives to change the PDSB’s culture implemented and enforced as soon as possible, knowing that more students and families would be harmed otherwise. The initiatives are designed to restructure the board's policies around hiring practices (to include more Black and other visible minority educators, who have previously been shut-out of job opportunities with PDSB); trustee training to make elected board members understand the impacts of their own discriminatory attitudes, and avoid such behaviour going forward; governance rules to eliminate the discriminatory practice of streaming and other patterns that denied Black students of opportunities extended to others; along with a series of other recommendations to change the culture of the board.
Many of the directives with concrete actions toward changing PDSB’s culture are halfway complete, Directive 27 has been completed.
(Graphic by Natasha O’Neill/The Pointer)
In a November 2021 update, the board had Ministry approval on Directives 2, 3, 4, 8, 13 and 27 as being complete. Two directives, 1 and 12, were awaiting the approval of the Ministry and a majority of the remaining directives, 1, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 and 25, were slated to be completed by June 2022. Directives 5, 18, 21, 22 and 24 are to be finished by December 2022, and Directives 14 and 26 are supposed to be completed by June 2023.
The community is concerned the directives could be used as a way to check boxes instead of transforming the institution. Recently, Directive 15, the Senior Team Professional Learning plan, was passed, which asks the board to develop a professional learning plan for senior staff on human rights, anti-bias and anti-Black racism.
This directive does not include trustees.
“Rather than taking a checklist approach, we view our progress toward each Directive as ongoing in our system transformation,” Malon Edwards, a PDSB spokesperson told The Pointer in an email. “On the website you will see them categorized as either in ‘Development’, under ‘Implementation’, or preparing for ‘Review and Innovation’.”
Idris Orughu previously raised concerns to The Pointer about the nature of training for the trustees, who are usually responsible for governance of the board (this was stripped from them after the Provinces reviews, when a supervisor was appointed to carry out the responsibilities of the elected trustees, the majority of whom failed to fulfill their commitment to students).
He is concerned about how measurable the training has been and if completed online how the public will know if everyone truly understood the workshops, and whether they intend to actually incorporate the teachings into their decision-making.
“Why I’m somewhat skeptical on the completion of this is because of how huge and important this is [for the] trustees’ function,” he previously told The Pointer. “I do not believe that doing this virtually allows them to understand what they are learning.”
School board trustees have been a part of perpetrating racism within PDSB. 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 wrongly 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 hurtful term. He later admitted to calling McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton, ‘McCriminal’, but Lawton never apologized to those parents she misled and silenced.
Swarup says workshops will continue to take place each year and the board has just finalized the directive. She wants the public to understand change takes time to take and she will continue pushing the board in the right direction.
“We submitted a plan that this year we did this learning, it reflected on what the directives were telling us and just today in a meeting we were discussing, what our learning plan [will] be for next year,” Swarup said. “What we're saying is, even though the compliance may be met, we are going to continue the work.”
The directives are only one portion of changing the culture. Relationships with Black community members have been fractured; trust is nonexistent in some cases. Although the directives focus on policies, the work of communication and listening needs to be done by PDSB leaders, often in more informal ways.
Swarup visited 136 of 259 schools in one year. Her focus was not just showing face but sitting down with student leaders and staff to understand what they need.
“Every person I reach out to means one person more who knows that this change is important and we’re in this together,” Swarup said.
PDSB is one of the most diverse boards in Canada and Ontario’s second largest. By visiting the schools, Swarup hopes to get a better understanding of each one's needs and how board policies are affecting them uniquely.
“Help them to feel that, yes, we can drive change along with you, and help me to see how I can continue to support the work seeing where we are on the journey in different areas,” she said.
Relationships are slowly being mended within the board, but some continue to push back against any change at all. One directive, in particular, has had “substantial resistance” as it was being implemented, with some senior staff members continuing to use harmful rhetoric around the policy, which has proven to benefit marginalized students.
The goal of Directive 19 is to destream students, removing some learners (mostly racialized students) from “applied” classes and steering them toward “academic” opportunities within school.
Data shows destreaming has already started to work.
“There wasn’t a significant decrease in the level of achievement for students enrolled in the destreamed grade 9 English and math during semester 1 of this 2021-2022 school year,” a June 22 board report reads. “This also holds true when measured by racial identity. Also, credit accumulation was not negatively impacted by the introduction of destreaming as indicated in the Peel District School Board Secondary Achievement - April 2022 Report.”
Researchers found few explanations or pieces of data to back up the use of streaming and uncovered issues of “self-categorization” in students often created by external influencing factors. From a student’s perspective, to be “streamed” is a harmful label that can dictate their path. After being told they should be in an “applied class” students may believe they are “not bright enough” to be in an “academic class.” Biased teachers, meanwhile, have been shown in data to stream Black students despite their good academic performance, while white students who perform inadequately are often placed in academic streams anyway, giving them advantages that will benefit them throughout their life.
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.”
The early success of ending streaming was overlooked by some trustees despite numerous instances in the report that mentioned how much resistance there was to the policy. Instead of focusing on the experience of students, the report details how educators have claimed they are negatively impacted by the elimination of streaming; the impacts on students, meanwhile, are minimized and discredited; while other harmful narratives continue to be used to justify streaming.
Peel Advocate Idris Orughu has been a tireless critic of the PDSB.
(The Pointer file photo)
“Additionally, resistance can be evident in educators creating what has been referred to as a ‘hierarchy of oppression’ or ‘oppression Olympics’ and creating narratives that attempt to decentre the work of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism rather than engaging in work to address the intersections and/or solidarity work,” a recent update states.
Swarup understands changing policies and structures toward destreaming is uncomfortable for some people.
“Sometimes that resistance is that ‘I don't want to change just because this is the way I've always done it.’ How do you get people to understand why we are bringing about this change?” Swarup asked.
Data to back up the policy move is leading the work within the board. Swarup also noted the extensive consultations with members of the school board, parents, staff and students that continue to take place. She said it is crucial for the board to support staff through the changes.
Some highlights over the last year include a new Anti-Racism Policy which was recognized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “the most comprehensive such policy in Ontario.” When looking back on her first year on the job, Swarup says she is most proud of that accomplishment.
Edwards told The Pointer, the policy was created in consultation with 2,000 diverse participants. It will not only help PDSB address racism, oppression and discrimination, the process of the policy’s development is also important.
“At the heart of this policy is the community voice; accountability, transparency in the voices of the PDSB, staff, employees [and] community,” she said. “So having this very robust policy is going to really help us move forward.”
PDSB also showcased that the number of diverse hires has increased from 2016 to 2022. According to the board, six years ago 24 percent of school administrators identified as Indigenous or racialized, in 2022 that number has jumped to 40 percent. In 2016, 29 percent of elementary and 32 percent of secondary teachers identified as racialized, in 2022, 44 percent and 50 percent respectively are from diverse backgrounds.
Swarup also noted the governance changes within PDSB have made stronger policies that positively impact students, like the Discriminatory Statements Response Procedure which now provides clear expectations around discriminatory language at PDSB. The enhancement also gave staff tools to report statements and an online response portal was introduced to streamline issues.
Even with a constructive year, Swarup says PDSB still has to repair the damage done by previous leadership.
For her, there have been times when she’s needed to take a step back and understand what others are going through.
“Let's say I send out a memo to the senior team that we need to do ‘this, this and this’, not recognizing that at the time the superintendents of schools are dealing with some work,” she said, explaining that educational priorities need to be balanced with key policies that also directly impact education. “It's always me recognizing the fact, ‘okay next time I will need to check the timelines of things before I say, here we're all going to do this.’”
Students feel comfortable approaching her, sometimes even sending personal letters thanking her for listening. Trustee Kathy McDonald previously told The Pointer how impactful Swarup has been in her first year.
“She doesn't put up with nonsense, and we have to remember that she can only work with what she has,” McDonald said of the new director. “So she's building capacity and she's committed to eradicating all of the inequities.”
As changes continue within PDSB, Swarup wants to make sure the process continues to be transparent; the directives are completed at a pace that is acceptable; and that her collaborative and compassionate leadership style continues to include difficult conversations to steer PDSB into a new chapter.
“We're all together on a journey. So with that message, it kind of built confidence in people, it restored trust in the system that we value everyone.”
Email: [email protected]
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story