In the last five years, York Region District School Board (YRDSB) has repeatedly shown a failure by staff at all levels to adequately respond to incidents of racism perpetrated students, teachers, principles and senior staff. This pattern, along with a consistent failure by the Board of Trustees to display characteristics of transparency and good governance, led to an erosion of public confidence in the Board. In 2017, this concern was met with a Provincial review of the YRDSB governance structure and equity policies. This review displayed deep dysfunctions in the Board’s ability to carry out the essential actions of government and a dismissal of concerns surrounding racism and equity, leading to the resignation of the then-Director of Education. The Board responded to the review’s recommendations with a robust five year performance-based Equity Action Plan, covering a wide range of action items meant to overhaul the YRDSB’s policies surrounding equity in education and response to racism in the school Board. However, this pattern of failure in responding to racist incidents in still persists, with the Board facing a 2019 $1M lawsuit for failing to responding to racist abuse of a student in Newmarket.
Brief Timeline of Race Relations in the YRDSB, 2015-2020:
Human Rights Complaint Against YRDSB
In December of 2016, a coalition of family and community members backed by the Vaughan African Canadian Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims filed a human rights complaint describing numerous incidents of staff at all levels failing to adequately respond or being the perpetrators of racial and religious discrimination during the 2015/2016 school year. These incidents include but are not limited to:
- Principal Ghada Sadaka of Sir Wilfrid Laurier Public School posting anti-immigrant and anti-muslim Facebook posts. After complaints to the YRDSB, families inquired about how their complaints were being processed and were met with no response. YRDSB failed to follow internal policies and procedures for investigating discrimination.
- An 8 year old child who is Black was assaulted at school. The school failed to follow the policy and procedures for collection of information and evidence in these cases. The school accused the child of lying about the incident and the parents of pressuring the child to tell a fabricated story of the incident.
- A child who is Black was assaulted and called racial slurs by a group of White students. Onlooking students filmed the incident and posted it on social media. The school didn’t suspend the students or follow protocols for responding to such an incident. The parents of the attackers were not told of the incident until 8 hours later. Follow-up meetings with the Board of Trustees contained no accountability, apology, or plan to combat racism in the school.
These incidents, and others like these, led racialized students to feel deeply unsafe in school. Parents described taking children from school to relieve the anxiety caused by this discrimination. Discrimination by teachers and anxiety that racialized students faced were seen repeatedly to be affecting students academic performance. Racialized students feared reprisal for asking for help in instances of racism and their parents experienced a lack of accountability for these abuses. These instances caused trauma, diminished school performance, and feelings of disenfranchisement in both parents and students. YRDSB showed little interest in taking a structural and transparent approach to respond to these claims.
Human Rights Complaints Issued by Charline Grant
After a November 2016 Board of Trustees meeting Nancy Elgie, a 82 year old Trustee, used a racial slur to referred to Charline Grant, a Mother of a student who is Black, while speaking with another trustee privately. Grant had been at that meeting to complain about racial discrimination faced by her son at a Woodbridge-area school, a sentiment which was echoed by other parents at the time. It took until February of 2017 for Elgie to step down after this incident. In March of 2017, Grant filed a human rights complaint naming the then-director J. Philip Parapply and chair DeBartolo, citing that neither reached out to address any investigation into the incident and that no Code of Conduct complaint was filed by any of the Trustees.
Grant later went on to run and come second in the October 2018 by-election for the position vacated by Elgie upon her resignation. When Anna DeBartolo, the winner of this election, stepped down Grant filed a second human rights complaint after the Board refused to instate her in this position as the incumbent. In the case of a Trustee stepping down, the Board can either instate the incumbent or hold another by-election, however, in no cases other than Elgie’s resignation had the ladder option been utilized since 1990. This rejection of precedent to instead hold a $177,000 election was seen by Grant as financially reckless retribution for her outspoken critiques of the YRDSB.
Review of the YRDSB by the Minister of Education
In light of the incidents detailed above, as well as allegations of mishandling of funds and preferential treatment of candidates in an election of the Director of Education, the Minister of Education ordered an external review of the YRDSB by the province. This report detailed a fundamentally dysfunctional system of governance with an apathetic and sometimes opposing attitude towards racial justice. Some examples of this dysfunction are listed below:
- School money being used to travel internationally by trustees.
- An opaque and preferential election process used by trustees to appoint J. Philip Parapply to the role of Director of Education. After only a year in this role, the Board issued an unprecedented 6-year extension to Parapply’s contract, with the bizarre provisions that Parapply could conduct his own annual self-assessments, that he would be guaranteed a supervisory officer position given his contract wasn’t renewed, and he had to approve the processes of his own appraisal.
- A culture of fear, with fraught relationships being displayed between the Board and the Director of Education, and internally between Board members. Those who wished to address these conflicts feared retribution.
- Systemic discrimination was displayed, with a total lack of meaningful or measurable targets to enhance equity and inclusion in the district. Capacity of equity-serving positions had been dismantled intentionally and equity focused initiatives like the ‘Every Student Counts’ survey had been halted. Racialized senior staff felt that they had been appointed to their roles as a matter of tokenism. The Board displayed a pattern of failing to respond adequately to equity concerns when they were brought forward.
- Quote from the review: “We heard parents and community members characterize the board’s responses to their complaints as hostile, dismissive, arrogant, and inappropriate. We heard of meetings between the director, trustees, senior staff and community members where the behaviour of the board representatives was described as ‘offensive and defensive.’”
Based on this review, the Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter issued 22 directives to amend these issues of poor governance and lack of genuine response to racism in the district. As a result of this appraisal, Director of Education Parapply resigned.
YRDSB Publishes the Equity Action Plan
In response to this review and Minister Hunter’s 22 directives the YRDSB published its Equity Action Plan – an anti-oppression framework. This plan includes a four-phase review and implementation structure stretching over the course of five years. This report has a robust structure of commitments, action items and accountability measures that aim to address the concerns raised by the community and by the Province. The framework states that the school board “...recognizes that systemic discrimination exists in our society and in our institutions, and that we must take deliberate action to tackle both systemic and attitudinal discrimination”.
The framework sees that the roll-back of equity-centered program is undone, establishes equity directives in staff recruitments, uses data to identify barriers for the success of racialized students, looks to amend school-community relationships, create more effective and responsive systems for reporting racism by students, and looks to dismantle the district’s Eurocentric curriculum and replace it with a more diverse network of knowledge. The items listed above only scratch the surface of the plan’s action items, as the document is too extensive to summarize in any in-depth way here, but the document shows a systemic commitment to facing structural racism in the school board (one issue that they do fail to address is a system of reporting and accountability for students experiencing racism from teachers and staff).
Failure to Respond to Acts of Racism Continues
In 2019, a family filed a lawsuit against the YRDSB for failing to respond to the repeated racist physical and verbal assault of their child while at school. The lawsuit states that the child was suspended along with their bullies after defending themself against one of these assaults. Requests for the child to transfer schools were rejected. This displays that the equity-seeking measures have not fully addressed the failure by schools within the YRDSB in responding to incidents of racism to this point.
By Noah Kelly