PDSB makes significant progress to implement equity/inclusion policies after decades of systemic discrimination
It has been three years since the Province intervened to address decades of systemic racism and harmful inaction that had plagued the province’s second largest school board.
Deeply entrenched anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination defined the culture after senior leaders at Peel District School Board fostered a dangerous environment. Evidence emerged that showed the extent of harm done to visible minority students for decades. Two separate provincial probes revealed what many students and families had known since the ‘80s, as the mostly-white educators and trustees that represented the student body—85 percent of the more than 155,000 students identify as a visible minority—often jeopardized the educational, emotional and economic well being of those they were supposed to lift up.
As they moved through the developmental years that were supposed to prepare them for their futures, many PDSB students were subjected to irreversible harm.
The provincial probe was ordered after Black parents had confronted trustees and the board’s former bureaucratic leadership. The panel of reviewers found Black students were suspended for minor infractions such as wearing a hoodie or hoop earrings, while their white counterparts rarely faced such punishment for doing the same; Black students were routinely streamed into non-academic pathways, denying them opportunities for the rest of their life; white students were inappropriately represented in gifted programs; and the teaching and administrative ranks were dominated by white educators and senior decision makers who did not reflect the student body.
As evidence of disturbing racist behaviour came forward The Pointer reported on one Principal who made a shocking statement at a meeting denigrating the Jamaican community; another principal did the same toward the Muslim community.
After its own investigation, the Province issued 27 directives aimed at dismantling systemic racism inside the organization — as upper-level leaders and trustees tried desperately to protect the status quo, illustrating the toxic culture that had been cultivated for decades.
The former director, Peter Joshua, other senior administrators and some trustees even took legal action against Black community members for advocating to change the board culture.
Joshua was fired shortly after and the provincially appointed supervisor who took over the trustees’ governance functions apologized to Black advocates and the community at large, while Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the legal action would be quashed.
With a new director steering the organization, things are starting to look up for the PDSB with progressive actions paving the way for a brighter future. In the nearly three years since the Ministry's review was completed, the school board has completed 17 of the 27 directives with the remaining 10 in progress. The board anticipates all will be completed by the end of the school year in 2023.
"Peel District School Board has been making substantial changes to plan for the future of education, nurturing a culture of innovation while we progress towards more equitable and inclusive learning environments,” Rashmi Swarup, PDSB’s Director of Education, said. “To date, we have submitted 17 of the 27 Directives to the Ministry of Education, with significant progress underway toward the remainder of the directives.
“Our efforts go beyond Ministerial compliance through the directives, as we are reshaping education to meet students' individual needs, and opening more pathways for all students to flourish."
Rashmi Swarup, PDSB’s Director of Education has prioritized the completion of directives ordered by the Minister of Education to eliminate systemic discrimination at the Peel District School Board.
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 and promotions with PDSB); trustee training to make elected board members understand the impacts of their own discriminatory attitudes, and avoid such behaviour going forward; governance policies to eliminate the discriminatory practice of streaming and other entrenched behaviour that denied Black students of opportunities extended to others; along with a series of other recommendations to change the culture of the board.
Although the board wouldn’t confirm which of the 27 directives have been completed, based on a review conducted by The Pointer of the reports available on the PDSB’s website as well as a previous update presented in November 2021, the board has received Ministry approval on directives 1 through 8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 25 and 27 as complete. The remaining directives, 9, 10, 14, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24 and 26, are slated to be completed and submitted to the Ministry by June 2023. In an email to The Pointer, a PDSB spokesperson said updates on directives 10, 22 and 23 are expected at or ahead of the February public board meeting.
“Rather than taking a checklist approach, we view our progress toward each directive as ongoing in our system transformation,” the spokesperson wrote. “Over the past year, we’ve made significant gains with de-streaming, pathways, and the guidance review. Our collective work continues to evolve as we dismantle systemic inequities and transform PDSB to ensure that our students’ identities are not a predictor of their outcomes.”
Some highlights over the last year include a new Anti-Racism Policy, outlined in Directive 16, which was recognized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “the most comprehensive such policy in Ontario” and was created in consultation with 2,000 diverse participants. Not only will it help the PDSB address racism, oppression and discrimination, the process of the robust policy’s development also emphasizes community voice. Governance changes within PDSB have made stronger policies that positively impact students, like the Discriminatory Statements Response Procedure laid out under Directive 12 which now provides clear expectations around discriminatory language at PDSB.
Directives 1, 2, 5 through 9, 10, 11, 15, 21, and 23 through 27 are associated with the school governance and management side of the board’s dealings, including training and annual reviews, while those related to the board’s complaint system and review of naming mascots, libraries and classrooms are addressed in directives 3, 4, 12, 13, 16, 18, and 20, and those related to student experience (ending streaming and improvements to guidance systems) are highlighted in 14, 17, 19, 21, 22.
The Ministry-mandated directives transpired after it became evident education leaders who set the tone and culture of the board were failing the students whose care was placed in their hands. Trustees were asked to apologize and admit to the harm they had caused – they later complained the forced apology was against their rights, proving what the provincial probe had revealed, that the majority of the PDSB’s elected trustees, responsible for instituting the culture, were at the centre of the problem.
The provincial investigation highlighted patterns of shocking racism that for decades had kept opportunities away from visible minority students.
Even more confounding, at PDSB, Black students made up roughly 10 percent of the student population yet in 2018-19, they made up 21.7 percent of those in non-academic 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). Black students whose marks clearly showed they belonged in more challenging, academic streams were routinely denied the opportunity.
The state the Peel District School Board saw community members take to the streets in protest in 2019, calling for significant improvements to protect students.
(The Pointer files)
When a follow-up review from the Province deemed the board’s trustees, who openly admitted they did not accept the Province’s approach, were not following the ministry directives to address the dire situation while continuing to harm Black communities, they were benched and the Ministry appointed Bruce Rodrigues to take over governance and carry out the pivotal steps to address the fractured system.
Meanwhile, the current head of PDSB faced several challenges. With the firing of former director of education Peter Joshua in 2020 and his replacement staying less than a year in the role before a new director was appointed, it led the community to question the commitment of the board toward the Ministry’s directives.
The board’s latest director, Rashmi Swarup, arrived at the PDSB in 2021 in the midst of a chaotic period, and she immediately began to reconstruct the culture while prioritizing the ministry’s directives.
Swarup previously told The Pointer, as the first South Asian woman to lead a school board in Ontario, her experiences are unique to her and are different from others, but the end goal is the same: closing the gap to create equity for everyone. She wants to make sure initiatives don’t “reside on paper,” and that the board develops on-the-ground policies to directly impact students positively.
Swarup was brought in to replace Colleen Russell-Rawlins who, in the summer of 2021 unexpectedly announced her departure to lead Toronto’s public board, leaving community advocates, families, staff and students alarmed about how the departure would impact progress on the sweeping changes ordered by the Province.
With a plan to create connections with the Peel District School Board community and prioritize their concerns, Swarup is finally putting the troubled board on the right track.
“When you have your ear to the ground, and you listen to people, and you kind of connect—who are the students who are not being successful, and you’re proactive and work with your administrators in a team, you make a difference,” she told The Pointer.
She has prioritized changes to eradicate systemic racism. As the work continues, particular directives have highlighted the need for action to hold board leaders and educators accountable.
Directive 4, which requires the board to retain an additional Integrity Commissioner responsible for code of conduct complaints, was marked as completed in the June 2021 Ministry Directives Summary Report. The move to have an additional accountability role came after disturbing actions by senior-level decision makers.
Trustee William Davies openly used a racist, derogatory term for a school with a large Black student body, calling McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton ‘McCriminal’ and after being heavily criticized, he admitted months later to making the racially insensitive remark and apologized. Trustee Sue Lawton shut down Black parents at a public meeting, claiming Davies never used the term, only to be exposed when he later acknowledged he used the racist term; Lawton has refused to apologize to parents and community members cut off by her.
Davies was the centre of controversy again two years later when he said during a meeting that ensuring talented visible minority students get the opportunities they deserve, through a new program aimed at identifying those who have previously been left behind, was like giving “courtesy seats on buses.”
Trustee William Davies during a meeting of the Peel District School Board in 2019 which saw numerous members of the community criticizing him for using a racist term to refer to McCrimmon Middle School.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
Poleen Grewal, the former associate director of equity and instruction, filed a searing human rights complaint against the board leadership and its former director, Peter Joshua, alleging a harmful top-down culture they created which did long-lasting damage to visible minority students. A confidential code of conduct whistleblower investigation into Grewal (alleged to be a reprisal for her human rights complaint) was widely leaked and centred on a complaint that Grewal had used her position to pressure staff into accommodating her son’s academic requests which she was later absolved of.
Her treatment by Joshua and other board leaders, with evidence filed to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, signalled the same problematic trustees responsible for years of harm refused to learn from the past. This led Grewal, who had tried to push forward equity work before the Province stepped in, to announce she would be taking a two-year leave of absence until July 2023.
Directive 8 now requires the board to retain an external expert “to conduct a robust, transparent appraisal of the performance of the director of education, including performance relating to addressing anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and other pressing areas of equity, and board governance and human resources practices.”
During his time as director, Joshua was criticized for the board’s mishandling of anti-Black racism as well as other forms of systemic discrimination.
Peter Joshua, the former director of the Peel District School Board.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
The directive also mandates that as part of the appraisal process, the board will include a 360-degree assessment that includes confidential feedback from senior administration, principals, teachers, students, trustees and representatives of the board community. This measure, if it had been enacted sooner, likely would have identified Joshua’s behaviour earlier, before elected trustees were stripped of their governance role.
As part of the move to eradicate streaming, Directive 14, which includes the Black Student Success Strategy and Anti-Islamophobia strategy, requires the board “establish a comprehensive four-year strategy and action plan to address and eliminate statistically significant disproportionalities in enrolment, achievement and outcomes of Black students, other racialized students and Indigenous students in applied, academic, locally developed, special education, and regional choice pathways and programs.” The plan needs to include specific objectives tied to actions and timelines for meeting them, as well as actions “to reduce the effects of implicit bias on the disproportionate outcomes of PDSB’s Black students, to encourage Black students to establish goals and achieve academically,” among others.
The board is also accountable for a Multi-Year Strategic Plan, the Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement, the Equity Action Plan, and in the performance appraisals of principals, supervisory officers, the director of education and associate directors. The strategy and action plan should also be a key component of the Annual Equity Accountability Report Card which is outlined in Directive 9.
The only report on these plans that has been presented to date is from November 2021 which provided an update on the four-year equity strategy, its components and implementation actions. There were items slated to be completed in 2022 but it appears there has been no progress since December 2021.
Directive 17 requires the board develop and implement a plan, with reasonable goals and timelines, to reform its guidance systems to address the needs and expectations of all students and their families, and to remedy the inadequacies and gaps in supports and guidance for historically and currently underserved demographic groups, with particular focus on Black students.
In October, the board approved the final report for the Reform of the Guidance Program/System, which aligns with the board de-streaming pilot program underlined in Directive 19. The report provides a timeline of events that have, and are scheduled to occur, in relation to the reform of the guidance program. While the board is on track to fulfill the requirements detailed in Directive 17, future quarterly reports are still required.
Relationships are slowly being mended within the board, but some continue to push back against disrupting the status quo. One directive in particular that has been met with “substantial resistance”, with some senior staff members continuing to use harmful rhetoric around the policy, is Directive 19.
Some trustees have defended the practice of streaming and resistance has been manifested by elected officials in different ways. Trustee Robert Crocker called the move to end streaming “political” and said ending streaming would set the bar “lower” in subjects if certain students are allowed to take them.
“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 June 22 board report stated.
Directive 19 aims to end the streaming of students into different educational pathways – removing some learners (mostly racialized students) from “applied” classes and steering them toward “academic” opportunities within their school – based on perceived academic ability in Grades 9 and 10. Contrary to the opinions of some trustees’, data shows destreaming has already proven to benefit marginalized students.
“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,” the June 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.”
The early success of ending streaming has been overlooked by some trustees; the report mentions how much resistance there was to the policy, and noted this was unfortunately common when non-white students are centred in strategies and future investments. Instead of focusing on the experience of students, the report detailed how some trustees and educators have shifted the attention to claims that destreaming will negatively impact certain students; discrediting the lost opportunities suffered by Black students and others for decades; other harmful narratives continue to be used to justify streaming.
The directives represent a big step toward changing the PDSB culture. Swarup recognizes the board still has to repair the damage done by previous leadership. Relationships with Black community members have been fractured; trust is strained 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.
“We remain committed to centering and amplifying student voices in our decision making through various platforms and opportunities to ensure they are meaningfully engaged in education,” the PDSB spokesperson said.
“This necessary work requires us to ensure the through line exists from the system to the school, and most importantly, the student desk. We must shift how students experience schooling to create a sense of belonging while ensuring equitable opportunities to flourish.”
Email: [email protected]
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