The tone, as is always the case with Halton School Board meetings, was overwhelmingly polite; but the message was clear—the latest draft of a professionalism policy for teachers is not good enough. Staff had been directed to develop a policy that would include a dress code for teachers in the wake of controversy over a teacher who started showing up for class wearing a large set of prosthetic breasts. After hearing a staff presentation, the HDSB trustees voted unanimously for the policy, which differed very little from one previously submitted by staff, to go to a committee for detailed discussion.
Staff contended that they cannot impose a dress code when contract negotiations are underway with teacher unions owing to labour law that bars any changes to work conditions during contract talks. Under questioning from meeting Chair Tanya Rocha, however, staff acknowledged that there are several existing codes of conduct set by the Ministry of Education and the governing professional colleges that can be enforced now by school administrators. It was Rocha who then moved that the policy go to committee, observing that the policy should have started in committee in the first place.
Although nearly identical to previous drafts, the policy was re-drafted supposedly reflecting the results of a public survey that asked for comments on the draft policy which attracted more than 8,000 responses. According to staff, the policy received an “overall positive” rating from respondents. Staff said the top-of-mind concerns of those who approved the policy were concepts such as “ensuring every person has the right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination, freedom from harassment and creating a safe, inclusive and accepting environment.” There was no question asking specifically about a dress code. Indeed the overall tone of the staff report seemed more about protecting worker and equity-seeking rights, than addressing the dress code issue which gave rise to the survey in the first place. Burlington trustee Xin Yi Zhang asked to see the raw data and was at a loss to understand why staff said it would not be available even in an aggregate form that would not identify individual respondents. The report did acknowledge that many respondents found the language of the policy too vague.
The unanimous board decision to send the report back for detailed discussion may signal a growing impatience by trustees about the staff response to the controversy, which has subjected the board to international derision in media, and sharp condemnation from the Provincial Education Minister Stephen Lecce. The controversy had died down considerably after it was announced that the teacher whose attire had prompted the hullabaloo had been placed on leave, but this week’s HDSB meeting placed the issue front-and-centre again.
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