Many families at the York Region District School Board are fed up.
They are frustrated with the Board’s inadequate response to serious issues of racism and discrimination.
The stories are well known by now and a clear pattern has emerged. Children have been discriminated against in the classroom – by teachers and by fellow classmates – with no proper follow-up by school administrators or by the board. Families have been ignored in their efforts to raise these issues. Board policies have either not been followed, or poorly communicated. The Board’s own head of equity, Cecil Roach, wrote a scathing letter describing a “culture of fear” and described feeling sidelined in his efforts to do his job.
Ontario’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter was right to demand an explanation from the Board for this mess. Community members and organizations have been waiting to hear how it would respond.
Not surprisingly, we have been sorely disappointed in a response letter that has now been circulated by the Board. Rather than acknowledging and “owning” the problem and setting clear corrective measures in place, the YRDSB’s response is a weak effort to deny and defend.
The board, now chaired by Trustee Loralea Carruthers, can’t be blamed for trying to walk a fine line. In fact, we applaud Carruthers for doing her best to resolve a bad situation. Though, it’s likely lawyers advised the Board to avoid admitting any wrongdoing in light of the ongoing human rights complaints pending against it. Regardless, it means families are once again left with nothing but broken trust. This is even more troubling since the premier has prioritized an Anti-Racism Directorate and acknowledged the realities of systemic racism.
Parents would have at least felt more hopeful had there been a simple acknowledgment that there is a problem and an admission that the Board has not handled parent complaints appropriately.
Instead, the Board attempts to brush aside concerns about the lack of transparency and mishandling of a Markham Principal’s racist social media comments by citing a “miscommunication.” Apparently, even though parents were provided with a copy of a particular policy by the board’s own superintendent and assured that this policy was purportedly followed, the Board now claims a different policy was used. Why does this matter? Because had the Board followed Policy 240, there would have been meetings and dialogue with parents about their complaints. None of that happened, so the time has come to back pedal.
Even its response to fiscal mismanagement highlights a culture of impunity. Rather than explain how junkets to Europe benefit students, the Board describes such travel as “professional development opportunities.” This leaves a bad taste for parents who are repeatedly asked to donate boxes of tissues to classrooms because budgets are supposedly tight.
As the victims of discrimination, community members are told that we are being over-sensitive or paranoid and that racism couldn’t possibly exist in our multicultural Canadian society let alone at a school board. Really? One of the Board’s senior trustees was comfortable enough to use the N-word to describe one of the parents who complained about racism at her child’s school during a board meeting.
The conclusion for everyone here is that something has gone horribly wrong at this Board. And while it was important to see former Chair Anna De Bortolo lose her position at an election earlier this fall, we must insist on more.
The ministry should immediately investigate the actions (or lack thereof) of the Board Director J. Parappally. The investigation team needs to reflect a deep understanding of equity, systemic barriers, leadership and governance and all findings must be made public.
York families have gone through enough. And if we truly care about student achievement and well-being, our children deserve better.
Nigel Barriffe is the president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Hilary Neubauer is with the Stornoway Growth Society (SGS), Chase Lo is the Executive Director of the Chinese Canadian National Council – Toronto Chapter (CCNCTO), and Naeem Siddiqi is with the group YRDSB Kids.
Originally published in the Toronto Star editorial page, January 25, 2017