VSB staff humiliated, intimidated: WorkSafeBC report

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Staff at the Vancouver School Board experienced intimidation and humiliation last fall amid mounting pressure to balance the school district's budget by closing schools, but did not report instances of bullying or harassment over fears of losing their jobs, according to a WorkSafeBC report.

A recently-released independent report done for the VSB on the issue of bullying and harassment arrived at similar conclusions.

The WorkSafeBC report details a work environment at VSB that deteriorated after 2014, as meetings became increasingly partisan.

"Discussions became heated, with trustees raising voices and pointing fingers between themselves," the report states. "At times, the interactions would be rude, derogatory, belittling, and demeaning using gestures and tone of voice."

Some of the behaviour was ultimately directed at staff, but the report redacts the names of trustees responsible, as well as the names and positions of people affected by the behaviour.

"Meetings were at times very partisan, stressful, and passionate; and ... staff were often 'caught in the middle,'" said the report.

"When witnesses ... were asked why they did not report any behaviour or comment they believed was bullying and harassment, they all answered they were fearful for their jobs and future careers," said the report, adding that even if it had been reported, there was nothing that could be done to the trustees. 

The report focuses primarily on two meetings last September that became heated. In many instances it finds specific comments or directives to staff to be humiliating and intimidating, given the public setting, and the report determines many of the comments meet the definition of bullying and harassment.

'An awful moment for all of us'

Former VSB trustee Patti Bacchus, reacting to the WorkSafeBC report, expressed surprise that staff felt so humiliated.

"I didn't see or experience, to me, behaviour that I thought was ever intended to do that. There was one moment in that Sept. 26 meeting that was uncomfortable, and I'm not surprised would have not been humiliating to the superintendent," said Bacchus.

"He didn't seem to be able to answer the question, and the people in the audience laughed. Now that was an awful moment for all of us and I'm sure it was for him," she said. "I'm fairly sure he would have known the answer."

Bacchus said, in hindsight, she would have certainly behaved differently toward staff.

'I regret that terribly'

"If I had realized how high the anxiety was among senior managers and how uncomfortable they were about it, I would have worked much harder to ensure them that none of this was about their work. None of this was about their integrity or their quality of work. They do excellent work," she said.

"I had no idea they were feeling this level of anxiety, or that they were under the gun. We were feeling under the gun as trustees, because the public was very upset about the possibility of seeing schools closed," said Bacchus.

"I didn't see how hard this was on staff and I regret that terribly."

The report concludes that the VSB was found to be compliant with policy regarding workplace bullying and harassment, but trustees aren't subject to common forms of discipline.

Education Minister Mike Bernier fired all nine VSB trustees on Oct. 17, 2016.

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