Controversial Hamilton school board trustee now vice-chair

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Published December 6, 2021 at 11:14 pm

The new second-in-command on Hamilton’s public school board is a trustee who voted against disclosing her COVID-19 vaccination status — and was also found to have made a racist remark at a meeting last year.

On Monday, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board announced that Dawn Danko will return for a second term as chair. Becky Buck, the trustee for wards 8 and 14, was elected vice-chair.

In late August, Buck was the sole HWDSB trustee who voted against trustees being subject to Ontario’s provincial disclosure policy on COVID-19 vaccinations. The policy, which applied to all teachers and school staff, was announced in mid-August.

Collective and community actions have proven to be the best way to curb the airborne spread of COVID-19.

At that time, Buck said she was “in no way interested in mandating another individual’s health-care plan and I’m supremely disappointed in the province’s decision last week to insert itself into the personal lives of education staff members in Ontario.”

At that time, Buck gave her support to the board calling on the province to fully fund any extra costs associated with the policy, and for “focused efforts” to protect the students’ and staff members’ privacy with public reporting of vaccine data.

Racism investigation

Earlier this year, Buck was one of three trustees who was accused of a conflict of interest, when they voted not sanction themselves following a third-party investigation of racism at HWDSB in which they were named. The investigation by Toronto law firm Koskie Minsky found four trustees contributed to anti-Black racism toward 2019-20 student trustee Ahona Mehdi.

One trustee, Alex Johnstone, declared a conflict of interest and later wrote she was “truly sorry” that Mehdi had a “negative experience” as a student trustee. Buck, Kathy Archer and Carole Paikin Miller went ahead and voted, which meant they avoided sanctions and the trustees’ names were edited out the public copy of the very report that concluded they lacked an understanding of equity, diversity and inclusion.

On Monday, Mehdi wrote of Buck’s ascension to vice-chair, saying, “Not only is she able to keep her seat, but now they’ve actively chosen to promote her.”

The report was prepared by Arleen Huggins and Philip Graham of the Toronto law firm Koskie Minsky. Due to the vote, the public copy refers to Trustee 1, Trustee 2, Trustee 3, and Trustee 4.

The investigation examined comments and behaviours at meetings on Sept. 30, 2019 and on June 22, 2020, among other incidents.

At the September 2019 meeting, Trustee 2 opposed the creation of an Indigenous student trustee position. The Koskie Minsky report said Trustee 2 said “it would be unjust and unfair to other students to do so and questioned why one specific voice should be privileged over other students.”

On June 22, 2020, a meeting was held that discussed the end of a police liaison program at the school board. The discussion was “situated in the context of anti-Black racism,” the investigator summarized, since many students and residents were concerned about the program’s effect on racialized students. This was also just weeks after the police killing of George Floyd, which had galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Koskie Minsky report concluded that comments made by Trustees 2, 3 and 4 at that meeting were racist. It also states Trustee 2 used the term “Twitter trolls” during that meeting, and admitted it to the investigator.

Buck publicly admitted to the “Twitter trolls” comment in March 2021. But she denied directing it toward community activists.

” ‘Twitter troll’ is a common phrase used to describe a person who posts offensive, divisive or argumentative remarks on Twitter,.” she wrote “It is not a racist phrase.”

Regarding Mehdi, the letter states “I felt that she and I had gotten along well and had no reason to suspect that she was upset by my votes or comments from our September 30, 2019, or June 22, 2020 interactions.”

Mehdi’s pinned Tweet calls her year as a student trustee “the most patronizing experience of my life.”

The board began offering trustees anti-racism and anti-oppression training in September 2020, after Mehdi went public with her traumatizing experiences.

The HWDSB also announced five committee chairs on Monday.

Trustee  Cam Galindo (wards 9 and 10) will chair the finance and facilities committee. Ward 13 trustee Paul Tut will chair the governance committee, Ward 3’s Maria Felix Miller will chair the policy committee and Ward 15’s Penny Deathe will chair the human resources committee.

Buck will also chair the program committee.

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