Province appoints investigator to examine Peel District School Board due to ongoing concerns about racism in Mississauga schools

 

Just days after the Peel District School Board (PDSB) issued an apology to staff and students impacted by anti-Black racism, the province has announced that it's taking further action to ensure the board works to address systemic discrimination and dysfunctional governance, leadership and human resources practices.

On April 28, Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, announced he has appointed lawyer Arleen Huggins to conduct an investigation into the PDSB’s compliance with Ministry of Education’s binding anti-racism directions.

“We expect our school leaders - trustees, senior administration, and educators - to ensure all students are learning in safe and inclusive classrooms,” said Lecce in a statement.

“This is why effective, transparent, and accountable school board governance is essential to the success and well-being of students in Ontario’s publicly funded schools.”

The move comes after two trustees—Kathy McDonald and Nokha Dakroub—refused to mediate with other members of the board, citing a lack of faith in the others to pursue meaningful change.

"[Trustee Kathy McDonald] and I exist. We fought Islamophobia and anti-black racism in the system every day for six years. We went to the provincial government, asked for help, [Stephen Lecce] ordered the review. The findings validated everything we fought for. And we are NOT mediating. It’s enough," Dakroub wrote on Twitter on April 22.

The ongoing controversies at the board are connected to a damning report on racism in schools and at the board level. 

Last month, the Ministry of Education released the report following its review of the PDSB--a review requested by the board in light of allegations of anti-Black racism and improper human resources practices.

The final report contains myriad examples of how racism disproportionately impacts Black students, pointing out that Black students are suspended more frequently than students of other ethnic backgrounds. The report also found that school administrators are more likely to involve the police in incidents involving Black students, even when the incidents are not criminal in nature. 

Over the course of the review, Black students reportedly told reviewers that they feel they're held to a higher standard than students of other races.

While the report suggests discriminatory practices existed in Peel schools for some time, calls for action on anti-Black racism reached a fever pitch when a trustee referred to McCrimmon Middle School in Brampton as “McCriminal” in late 2019. 

On March 13, Lecce submitted a letter to the PDSB with 27 directions and corresponding timetables and deliverables. 

Directions include retaining an independent mediator or conflict resolution expert to advise the board, retaining an additional integrity commissioner, implementing a mandatory annual learning plan for board members, finding an external expert to evaluate the performance of the director of education, implementing an annual equity accountability report card and more. 

After the two trustees said they could not mediate—effectively stopping the board from following a direction—Lecce expressed his disappointment with the board on Twitter. 

"The continued inaction and hurt felt by racialized communities will not be tolerated," Lecce tweeted on April 22. 

"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." 

In a tweet, McDonald said she could not mediate while feeling unsafe. 

"I feel the trauma at [Peel Schools] that I have experienced has led me to feel unsafe so I CANNOT MEDIATE with people that attack and try silence me and my community," she tweeted. 

Last week, PDSB Chair Brad MacDonald and Vice-Chair David Green released a statement expressing disappointment with Lecce's April 22 tweet, saying that it made some members of the board feel "demoralized." 

MacDonald and Green wrote that the board of trustees committed to the completion of each of the 27 directives at a March 24 meeting and that it has since completed 10 elements of the directives. 

"…when we read a tweet from the Minister of Education earlier today, we were left confused and disheartened, and needing to seek urgent clarification," the statement reads. 

"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."

Dakroub and McDonald have since tweeted that they have not agreed to mediate. 

In response to the ongoing conflict, the province has asked Huggins—a lawyer with 30 years of experience in employment law, human rights law, workplace harassment and discrimination investigations and commercial litigation—to investigate. 

Huggins is a former president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and a former chair of both the Canadian Bar Association Standing Committee on Equity and the Ontario Bar Association Equal Opportunity Committee. Huggins was also on the founding board of the African Canadian Legal Clinic.

Lecce said the board must "do better." 

“When it comes to confronting racism and discrimination, I will not accept delay or inaction,” Lecce said in a statement. 

“The message I am sending is -- do better. Our kids deserve better. And I will do whatever it takes to ensure these issues are addressed immediately and effectively.” 

Huggins will deliver her report to the minister on or before May 18, 2020.

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