On June 8, 2020, a Canadian Press article reported on the action taken by Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, regarding racism allegations at the Peel District School Board, Ontario’s second largest school board. A Ministry of Education staff report uncovered “numerous incidents of racism and equity concerns, as well as dysfunction among trustees and with staff” which was estimated to be deeply rooted and had spanned several years.
The report identified a disturbing trend of “systemic” issues based on findings that Black students were less likely to be enrolled in academic classes, experienced higher rates of suspension and were discouraged from pursuing a post-secondary education. Conditions resulted in an unprecedented move by the Ministry of Education to issue a list of 27 directives which had to be overseen by an independent supervisor when it was apparent that the board staff and trustees lacked both the “ability and capacity” and more importantly, the “will” to address the findings in the report.
The comprehensive list directed the Peel Region School Board to retain the services of an external parliamentarian/governance expert to establish procedures and practices for effective, respectful, and transparent governance; develop and implement a comprehensive Annual Equity Accountability Report Card to accurately measure the success of implementing the directives; creation of a centralized tracking system to maintain race-based data on suspensions and expulsions; creation of a new Equity Office to oversee the Board’s new Equity Action Plan (for both students and staff); and the hiring of a School Board Integrity Commissioner.
Since 2015 the Ontario Ombudsman has had the power to investigate and resolve complaints involving Ontario School Boards and typically deal with systemic issues related to a lack of transparency, governance, accountability and staff conduct. The 2019 Annual Ontario Ombudsman’s Report indicated that of the 72 Ontario School Boards, there were a total of 732 complaints filed, 495 involving English Public-School Boards (20 of which were filed against the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and 4 against the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board). The Ombudsman continues to encourage school boards to appoint integrity commissioners as an independent and impartial local mechanism for handling complaints about trustees and there are currently five Ontario school boards that utilize such a service.
As mentioned in a recent Hamilton Spectator Article, Katrina Clarke touched upon the experience of one School Board Integrity Commissioner who was said to have been “met with repercussions from the board of trustees”. As Durham District School Board’s first integrity commissioner, she was introduced in February 2019 and fired six months later after warning trustees against attempts to “muzzle” and “obstruct” her in an ongoing investigation involving a former Director of Education and code of conduct violations involving school trustees. The matter surfaced when a school board trustee disclosed details of the Board’s attempt to undermine the investigation and resulted in the trustee’s resignation, through frustration, and the integrity commissioner’s subsequent dismissal at two other school boards around the same time.
The parallels between the Peel School Board and what we are currently experiencing at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board cannot be overlooked and in fact the growing demand for local reform which is being expressed by others including, Provincial NDP Leader, Andrea Horwath; Hamilton Students for Justice; Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association; Hamilton-Wentworth Principal’s Council; HWDSB Managers’ Leadership Cabinet; and the HWDSB Human Rights and Equity Community Advisory Committee, would seem to indicate that the timing is right for systemic changes within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and is a clear indication that maintaining the status quo will no longer be tolerated.
As a former community volunteer at a local secondary school for many years and past Parent Council Chair, I’m alarmed with many details of the “Investigator’s Final Report” which tend to reflect blatant acts of racist behaviour towards a student trustee which was a clear violation of the trustee code of conduct. Furthermore, the redaction of the report and lack of transparency including the reluctance to issue appropriate sanctions against the four trustees, is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go before Hamilton residents and more important students, feel safe and supportive within our public education system.
Article by Kevin Gonci. Editor’s note: Kevin Gonci has advocated for a review that would lead to systemic changes within our Public School Board. This would involve a multi-facet approach requiring a number of reforms that would include the use of an Ombudsman.