Review of York Region District School Board finds 'culture of fear,' 'systemic discrimination'

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Under watchful eyes of province, York school board gets to work on list of directives

A review of the York District School Board (YRDSB) offers a sweeping list of recommendations for the board to remedy what is described as a "culture of fear" among board members and senior staff, as well as "systemic discrimination."

On Tuesday, Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter issued 22 directives to the school board as a result of review. At least one of which is meant to be enacted within 24 hours.

She described the review's findings as "profoundly troubling."

Hunter initiated the review after two high-profile incidents of racism and Islamophobia within the YRDSB: one in which a school trustee used a racial slur when referring to a black parent, and another in which a principal posted offensive material on Islam and refugees to her Facebook page.

Those two incidents were set against a backdrop of mounting complaints of systemic racism in the board.

Report recommends change to training, travel policies

The report, written by Patrick Case, a law professor and former school trustee, and Suzanne Herbert, a former deputy minister in Ontario, canvassed staff, board members, community members, students and parents.

Among the report's recommendations are calls for mandatory training for all staff in the board on "equity, human-rights and anti-oppression," and for the establishment of a YRDSB Human Rights Office responsible for human rights compliance.

Both of those recommendations have been issued as directives by Hunter, with the expectation that the school board will take steps towards them in the next two months.

The report also includes recommendations for the YRDSB's policy around expenses related to international travel, calling for a moratorium on staff and board member travel until a new policy is brought in that offers more transparency and clearer approval processes.

As a result, Hunter has also directed the YRDSB to cease expensed travel, which the school board has agreed to do. 

'Disturbing lack of accountability' on racism issues

The report describes a "disturbing lack of accountability and diffusion of responsibility" among the school trustees around the allegations of racism in the board. It also denounces the board's inaction and failure to respond to the two incidents mentioned above.

On the topic of the offensive Facebook posts put up by Markham school principal Ghada Sadaka, the report says, "the board failed to exercise strong and ethical leadership," questioning why it didn't issue a strong statement at the time of the controversy.

The report also asks why no Code of Conduct complaint was filed against trustee Nancy Elgie after she admitted to having used a racial slur in reference to a parent.

Case and Hebert later describe Code of Conduct complaints as being used primarily as an "intimidation tactic" among board members. They detailed an incident in which "the Code of Conduct policy was used to force a racialized trustee to make an apology for the use of the term 'white privilege.'"

The report also details accounts of homophobic behaviour by some staff and board members, listing examples such as "homophobic jokes and comments… a board member suggesting to school staff that gay-straight alliances should be discouraged; and an environment hostile to the recruitment of a senior official who is gay."

'Culture of fear' and communication breakdown

Staff and board members are described as living in a "culture of fear," with a major communication breakdown between board members, staff and director of education J. Philip Parappally.

Parappally is the subject of ample criticism, with pages of the report describing concerns about his recruitment and behaviour. Staff, union representatives and principals expressed "little confidence in the director's ability to motivate and lead going forward."

Hebert and Case describe Parapally as cultivating a "fearful and threatening environment" in which some staff members are asked to spy on others, and promotions and compensation appear to be based on favouritism.

They also express concern that Parapally's contract was extended to an "unprecedented" ten years, despite the fact that he never had a genuine performance review.

School board: there are 'significant errors of fact,' but report will not be ignored  

The YRDSB put out a statement Tuesday morning thanking the ministry for the report, and also made assurances it would take action immediately. The board listed steps already in motion, including ceasing travel, creating an equity plan and equity audit, and hiring an integrity commissioner.

"Message received, loud and clear," YRDSB chair Loralea Carruthers was quoted as saying.

However, the statement also claimed that the report is not wholly factual.

"We have seen within the report some significant errors of fact that we have raised directly with the Minister," Carruthers said. "In addition, we are seeking clarification on a number of points."

Hunter said she stands by the work done by Case and Hebert.

Parappally also put out his own statement, acknowledging that "there are areas for improvement within the board" and promising to review both the report and the directives issued by Hunter.