Peel school board steps up meeting security 'to ensure people are safe'

Peel school board steps up meeting security 'to ensure people are safe'

Tonight's meeting of the Peel Regional District School Board will be anything but business as usual. 

Guests will be admitted through one only entrance. They will have to sign in and present identification at the door. There will be at least three police officers on duty to keep the peace. The proceedings, including the guest entry, will be videotaped. 

Board chair Janet McDougald, in an interview on Metro Morning Wednesday, said there will be no allowance for shouting and name calling. 

"We have made it very clear that any discourteous behaviour or offensive language will not be tolerated and people will be asked — with the support of police — to leave the building."

What's prompted the added security — something McDougald says is unfortunate and unprecedented in her 19 years as board chair — are recent incidents in which groups of people have shouted anti-Islamic slogans during the board's public meetings. In one nasty incident captured on camera, a man tore pages from the Qur'an and hurled them onto the meeting room floor. 

Muslim students have observed congregational prayers, known as jumu'ah, inside Peel schools in some form for close to 20 years. But the issue has been a flashpoint since September, when the board sought to review whether students should be allowed to write their own sermons or instead be required to use one of six pre-written sermons.

In January, students were given the green light to continue with the existing policy, with prayers being supervised by a staff member. The sermons are delivered in English, except for verses quoted directly from the Qur'an, and will continue to be supervised by a staff member, according to the updated policy.

Security needed 'to ensure people are safe'

As the board trustees discussed these policies at recent public meetings, a vocal group of opponents have shown up to oppose the prayer accommodation. Last month, one opponent of the policy offered $1,000 to anyone who provides him with a video of the prayers.

In response to the video, the Peel District School Board, which serves Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, issued a memo to its administrators, reminding them that personal [recording] devices can only be used in schools for educational purposes, as directed by staff.

With tensions rising, particularly at the public meetings, McDougald said trustees had no other choice but to step up security. 

"It's prudent of the board to be prepared for anything," she said. "And that is why we've increased security, to ensure that people are safe."

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said the Peel board has done a good job of balancing security concerns with the need to keep its meetings open to the public. Hunter also said all boards in Ontario are required to provide a place for students to pray. 

"It's the duty of the board to make these accommodations," she told CBC Toronto on Wednesday. "We have to make sure that everyone feels they're included and they belong, especially at school."

McDougald said previous meetings, even ones tackling contentious issues, have always been held in the open without a problem. But the debate over prayer accommodation has drawn out protesters McDougald describes as openly racist and anti-Muslim. 

"It was very disturbing," she said of the outbursts at recent board meetings. "I've been chair of the board for 19 years and I've never faced this kind of disruption, disrespect and racism from a group of individuals who come to the board meetings." 

McDougald said the anti-Muslim outburts haven't been limited to the meetings. She said she's also received hateful emails and voice mails. She said it's not clear if some of the most vocal opponents are parents or even residents of Peel. 

"We don't know who they are," she said. "Based on email and voicemails, a lot of those calls are not from Ontario. Quite a few of them come from out west. This has more of less gone national."

McDougald said with the prayer policy now decided, the board must tackle other matters. 

So will the added security allow the board to conduct its meetings without more problems? McDougald is hopeful, but also said she won't be surprised if protesters will try other ways to disrupt the meetings. 

"I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail but I suspect that will not happen," she said.