Peel school board steps up security at meetings to rid them of 'racist outbursts'

Peel school board steps up security at meetings to rid them of 'racist outbursts'

The Peel District School Board is stepping up security measures at its public meetings after months of flaring tensions over religious accommodation policies came to a head recently with a Qur'an being torn up by a protester.

The move, meant to "ensure the safety of staff, students, parents and community members," is effective immediately, the board announced Thursday.

"Essentially we are taking the steps necessary to ensure that the work of the board can happen, and that parents and students who have genuine business with the board are able to be there free of racist outbursts and hateful disruption," board director Brian Woodland told CBC Toronto.

The new rules will mean that anyone attending board meetings, including staff, will be required to present identification and sign in.  

Security personnel will escort individuals inside the HJA Brown Education Centre — where the meetings are held — one at a time through the building's main entrance.

Anyone attending the meetings will also be required to adhere to the board's Code of Conduct and will be recorded while on school board property.

"Permission will not be sought in advance. This message, as well as signage posted in the education centre, serve as notice," a release from the board states.

Move follows warning to staff to be 'extra vigilant'

Under the policy, the board chair can also ask individuals to be removed from the boardroom and can adjourn meetings if necessary to be continued at a later date.

The school board's move follows a warning to administrators last week to be "extra vigilant" after a video surfaced online offered a $1,000 cash reward in exchange for recordings of Muslim students at any school in the region "spewing hate speech during Friday prayers."

Peel Regional Police have said they are investigating the offer, which encourages students to hide cameras inside school gyms and cafeterias where Muslim students gather to pray on Fridays — and even to hide them in their clothes, pretending to pray to obtain footage.

Woodland expressed concerns that the offer provides an incentive for students to breach privacy laws.

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 previously 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 supervised by a staff member, according to the updated policy.

Meanwhile, an online petition calling for the end of religious accommodation in Peel schools put out by a group called Religion Out of Public Schools has attracted upwards of 6,000 signatures. The group, which goes by ROOPS for short, said it had representatives present at the last board meeting but had nothing to do with the disruptions.

Last month, Peel District School Board Chair Janet McDougald told CBC Toronto that a vocal group has been attending school board meetings for the last two months or so "specifically to make it known they are against Muslim prayer in schools," adding the board has since begun bringing police officers to meetings for security.

McDougald also said the board will no longer allow questions or presentations related to religious accommodation at meetings.