The former Hamilton Wentworth District School Board student trustee whose complaints of racism triggered an independent review of the Board’s practices, says there need to be direct sanctions against the board members who were found by the investigators to have said some of the words that were attributed to them. Ahona Mehdi held a virtual news conference today in which she revealed the names of some of the trustees whose names were redacted in the report which was authored by Arlene Huggins and Philip Graham.
While expressing general satisfaction with the report, she said she had only been handed the report an hour before it was posted on the HWDSB website, whereas trustees had the report since December.
Mehdi charged that Trustee Alex Johnstone, who was board chair at the time, seemed intent on toning down the student trustee’s comments, particularly around the program where police maintained a presence in the schools. Mehdi had planned to introduce a motion to cancel the program completely and alleged that Johnstone asked her to edit out some references in the motion to her personal experience and eventually had the motion killed altogether on procedural grounds. Wrote the investigators: “It is a finding of this Report that the Complainant was, for the most part, subjected to efforts to silence her voice as a Trustee. Specifically, the Complainant faced censorship of her comments and questions in advance of the Safe Schools Panel Board meeting; including not being permitted to share her personal experiences with race-based bullying.”
Anti BLM comments
One of the more controversial charges levelled by Ms. Mehdi was about remarks that took place during the debate on ending the police-in-schools program, where it was alleged three trustees made comments that she felt amounted to racial gaslighting. The debate took place in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder. The Investigator found that the trustee identified by Mehdi as Carol Paikin Miller had commented that the Board was focusing on anti-Black racism to the exclusion of anti- Semitism and Islamophobia, and that this focus was inequitable. The Investigator further found that Trustee 3, identified by Mehdi as Kathy Archer, commented that all student voices mattered, in a discussion where Black Lives Matter was being discussed and that the report brought by HWDSB staff did not capture the voices of all students. The investigator found that Trustee 2, identified by Mehdi as Becky Buck, used the term “Twitter trolls” in reference to community advocates, and commented that the positive aspects of the police program have been overshadowed by a few bad interactions. Commenting, the author wrote, “the Investigator finds that the Trustees knew or ought to have known that their comments were not only insensitive but expressions of anti-Black racism.” In regard to trustee Paikin Miller the investigator commented further. “On a balance of probabilities, the Investigator finds that Trustee 4 made overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks in conversation with other Trustees. Furthermore, that Trustee 4 displayed a problematic attitude towards equity issues in Board and committee meetings.”
The report also touched on an allegation that a trustee had used the “n” word but this could not be independently confirmed.
In its findings the Investigator revealed an overriding culture where the goal appeared to be to head off any controversial topics before they reached an open board session. The practice saw the chair fielding controversial comments and questions, even from fellow trustees, and attempting to resolve them with staff off-line.
The investigation also suggested some division on the board between those who approved of the advocacy attempts by Ahona Mehdi and those who did not, in that she had support from some trustees for her motion to remove police from schools before the motion was ruled inadmissible.
Former Chair comments
Trustee Alex Johnson, who stepped down as chair in December, offered this comment to the Bay Observer Thursday:
“All Board Trustees have a responsibility to use their positions to support a safe and encouraging environment for their peers and the students in our region. In my time as chair, I worked hard to do this, but I understand that a former student trustee had a negative experience while on the school board. Having seen the findings of the report, I understand now how the absence of an equity-informed understanding of board policy and governance created biases and systemic barriers. For this I am truly sorry.”
“I fully support the recommendations made by the investigator to address the training and governing practices, and to create a more supportive and equitable environment.”