Despite ongoing community advocacy, countless reports, surveys and investigations, and even a takeover by the provincial government which resulted in 27 binding directives aimed at eliminating systemic racism from within the Peel District School Board, a recently released report paints a damning picture of a local education system that refuses to address long-standing problems of racism and systemic discrimination that have caused harm to students and their families for decades. 

The recent Employment Systems Review and workplace census concluded that instead of working toward goals set by the provincial government, staff within PDSB are actively working against the Ministry’s mandate, sabotaging efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, while many employees continue to believe this work does not benefit students or their learning experience. 

In March, the PDSB’s Employment Systems Review (ESR) report, conducted by Turner Consulting Group, was completed. The report issued a total of 108 recommendations to the PDSB in light of the many shocking results found through its research which revealed systemic barriers, discriminatory work cultures, inequity in hiring processes and an astounding lack of action by the PDSB to address concerns from staff regarding these and many more issues. 

Additionally, the report reveals that in many instances members of the PDSB created conditions for staff to feel unsafe, left some feeling intimidated and even threatened if they considered coming forward about their experiences. They also reported a lack of faith in the PDSB and its systems to meet their concerns and improve their work experience, while HR departments failed to create safe spaces for individuals to come forward.

Turner also found significant resistance to equity work mandated by the provincial government following the education ministry takeover of the PDSB’s governance after a sweeping review revealed a board unwilling to address the systemic discrimination that had for generations done profound damage to visible minority students, particularly those who identify as Black. 

The recent independent third-party work reveals a board that continues to fight change, with many educators and administrators protecting the status quo in a board where 85 percent of students are not white, while the vast majority of employees are. 

The Pointer obtained a copy of the damning full final ESR report from the PDSB. Tim Vining, a founding board member of Advocacy Peel, told The Pointer that the complete report initially was not shared publicly and was only put out at the request of a PDSB trustee. The Pointer has asked the PDSB why the full report was not initially shared and has not yet received a response.

On November 7, 2019, Education Minister Stephen Lecce released a statement responding to and acknowledging concerns about anti-Black racism and a lack of adherence to governance, leadership, and human resources practices brought up by “families, students, the Peel District School Board Director of Education, the board of trustees, and members of the broader community,” as his statement read. He said that, “discrimination and prejudice against students is unacceptable,” and confirmed that the Ontario government “will be taking action,” by appointing reviewers to probe the PDSB.  

Following his statement, Lecce announced that he had appointed Suzanne Herbert and Ena Chadha, and later Shawn Richard (who was added following backlash from the community for the lack of an independent Black reviewer on the initial team), to conduct a formal and immediate review of the PDSB in light of widespread allegations and increasing evidence of systemic discrimination. 

The Reviewers reported their findings to Lecce in February 2020. On March 13 of that year, he issued 27 binding directives to the PDSB based on the review, which aimed to address systemic discrimination at the PDSB, including its issues with anti-Black racism, human resource practices, board leadership and governance, including the disturbing behaviour of elected trustees, all of which prompted the initial review.

Following the release of the directives, the PDSB underwent investigation by the Ministry to determine its compliance with the binding directions issued by the minister. The findings of the investigation, which was conducted by Arleen Huggins, were reported to Lecce in May of 2020, and determined that, “the Board has failed to comply with Directions that can easily be characterized as straight-forward,” the investigation report reads.  

In her report following the issuance of the mandated directives, Huggins wrote, “in their responses to the Minister’s binding Directions, I have not seen any evidence from the Chair or the Vice Chair of an appreciation of their responsibility to provide this leadership but instead have observed a focus on formal compliance, absent of concern for process or content.”

“The collective Board and the Director’s Office is lacking both the ability and capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, the will, to address the findings in the Report, and therefore future non-compliance with the Minister’s binding Directions is probable,” she wrote.

She determined through her investigation that the Board was “dysfunctional and, with no prospect of successful mediation, is incapable of providing good governance.” Huggins also wrote that the Board “has a misunderstanding of anti-Black racism,” and that “there is no evidence that the Board has a willingness to engage in the necessary work to gain such an understanding, nor does the Board understand the urgency of the need to do so.”

“The Director of Education has not demonstrated the necessary capacity to lead the implementation of the binding Directions,” she said in the report. The Director of Education at the PDSB at the time was Peter Joshua.

Following this, Minister Lecce issued a response to the investigation findings on June 8, 2020, to the PDSB, saying that he is “directing the Board to demonstrate to my satisfaction that it is able to sustainably work together, and with the Director of Education and Associate Directors, to provide good governance in the interests of all students of the Board.”

He told the PDSB that the “Board must, by June 22, 2020 submit a report… that includes the Board’s plan to address the findings in the Investigation of the Peel District School Board Report and the Peel District School Board Mediation Interim Report.” 

At the deadline, Lecce placed the PDSB under supervision by Bruce Rodrigues on June 22, 2020, and he would be in control of the Board for roughly two-and-a-half-years, stripping trustees of their governance role. The PDSB published a brief statement on June 23 the same year, announcing Joshua’s removal from the Board, “effective immediately.” 

“From day one, I said that if the PDSB does not act swiftly and completely to counter racism and positively change the culture within our schools, then the government will act,” Lecce said in a statement in June of 2020. Early this year trustees resumed their governance following the departure of Rodrigues, who said they were now “better equipped to govern the PDSB,” in a letter to the Minister in January. 

Lecce’s concerns from three years ago, now appear to have had little impact on many decision makers within the PDSB. 

In the 2022 Workforce Census, which was completed by Turner Consulting Group, the organization reveals that “the information shared by employees about why they chose not to participate suggests that there are employees who do not support the Board’s efforts to achieve workplace equity and in fact chose to undermine this work by completing the census multiple times.” It further writes that “some also shared that they don’t see a connection between workplace diversity and the success of students.” 

Of the 27 ministry directives, number 24 is an Employment Systems Review, which includes the 2022 Count Me In Workforce Census and refers to the 2013 Journey Ahead Report. In a brief PDSB staff report addressing the recent work of the consultant on directive 24, the board writes that the PDSB expresses its “sincere regrets for comments that have come across as undermining the principles of research and reporting writing by the Turner Consulting group.” 

The Pointer asked the PDSB for comment on whether the Workforce Census attempted to mitigate the “undermining” described in the report and to elaborate on how these participants impacted the survey results. Aside from being told the questions are “in the process of going through approvals,” The Pointer has not received a response.

The Workforce Census document notes that “of PDSB’s 25,516 employees, a total of 17,022 responded to the survey, with 15,942 agreeing to participate and 1,080 indicating that they did not wish to participate.” The Census was “voluntary and confidential,” the report notes, and was “anonymous and not connected to an employee’s name or ID number.” Participants had the choice to not answer specific questions through a “prefer not to answer” option and they could discontinue the survey at any time. 

The findings of the ESR illustrate how there has been a surprising lack of progress on diversity and equity initiatives within the board, despite efforts starting a decade ago. The ESR report highlights how there is a significant lack of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion infrastructure at the PDSB, so much so that their approach has not only failed to address systemic and institutional barriers and discrimination, but has resulted in backsliding in some ways. The report notes that the PDSB’s approach has “generated and deepened resistance to this work rather than supporting an understanding and commitment to employment equity.” 

The PDSB has had a Manager of Workplace Equity for the past decade yet does not have “the employment equity infrastructure and maturity that one would expect” after all this time. The report shares how the consultants “did not find evidence of a strong policy framework, an Employment Equity Strategy, equity embedded within human resources practices, a solid understanding of workplace equity among employees.”

The Journey Ahead Research Report released in 2013  was meant to be a “starting point” for workplace equity at the PDSB, but the consultants write that “it appears that the Board’s focus was on implementing the actions from the report rather than changing the organization’s hiring and promotion policies and practices.”

“While some changes have been made to the Board’s hiring practices, Human Resources staff shared with us that they have not yet been given the training and support that they want and need to be able to embed equity into their work,” the report reads. “The result is that a decade after The Journey Ahead report, the PDSB remains at the beginning stages of a workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion program that is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive approach and a sole focus on diversity, with little attention being paid to equity and inclusion.”

One problematic approach the PDSB has taken is a microscopic focus on one element of diversity, equity and inclusion work—addressing anti-Black racism.

“Because the Board does not have a more mature workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion program, its present focus is in response to the Ministry Directives, which focused on addressing racism, specifically anti-Black racism. This has left members of other equity-seeking groups concerned because they continue to experience harassment and discrimination that is not being addressed.”

The examples of this harassment and discrimination are detailed at length in the ESR. 

The ESR highlights resistance to equity that racialized employees face, where “if they are working to champion or advance equity… they are particularly at risk of feeling isolated and being undermined in the workplace,” the report reads. Further, the predominantly white PDSB employees do not seem to understand the concept of white supremacy as a system and structure, and that “many employees shared a lack of understanding of the concept and expressed their perception that discussions about white supremacy are personal attacks on White people,” the report reads. 

“Some also shared that talking about racism, colonization, and related topics is a form of racism,” the report states, highlighting that there were employees who “expressed considerable resistance to equity, diversity, and inclusion work—employees who, regardless of PDSB’s approach, would likely not change their perspectives. For them discussing issues of white supremacy and racism is seen as racism.” 

The findings from the Workforce Census and the ESR are extremely concerning. In the ESR document, perceptions around workplace hiring reveal that favouritism and nepotism are believed to overshadow merit and experience with regard to hiring and advancement at the PDSB. When it comes to hiring, there is “explicit discrimination, which limits opportunities for racialized teachers and perpetuates the gap in racial diversity between teachers and students at the PDSB,” the report states. 

A section of the ESR report covers the specific forms of discrimination faced by different marginalized groups within the PDSB, and includes personal accounts from individual participants. In collecting its data for this report, the Turner Consulting Group reviewed documents and competition files, and held consultations with about 1,500 employees through focus groups and an online survey (which was completed by 1,286 employees). Additionally, for senior leaders, Human Resources staff, equity staff, and bargaining unit representatives, one-on-one interviews were conducted.

In particular, the ESR report found staff with disabilities experienced a pattern of mistreatment from the Human Resources and Abilities Office, as well as denials to employee requests for accommodations, which “impacted their ability to continue to work and to do their best work” and “puts the Board at risk of a successful human rights complaint, as the standard for providing accommodations is undue hardship.” 

Employees with disabilities also reported that the treatment by Human Resources and Abilities Office staff has been “humiliating, dehumanizing, awful, threatening, painful, and intimidating.” Employees at PDSB are not believed by these staff members who, in a number of instances, have “talked down to,” “yelled at,” and treated these employees “inappropriately” when they requested accommodations for their disabilities. 

One participant said, “the Abilities Office has made it clear that asking for accommodation is asking for special treatment. When I asked for accommodation for a physical disability, they told me I should not have taken the job knowing that I was not able to perform it. I shared that I took the job because it was my specialty area and could perform with accommodation.”

Many employees have attempted to acquire accommodations for months and even years, with their ongoing requests being repeatedly ignored. One participant shared, “I applied for accommodations in October 2021 and it was granted for the last week in April 2022. This was due to surgery this past summer. By the time I received the accommodation it was no longer needed.”

While the many issues brought forward around accommodations were raised by employees from all different backgrounds, racialized employees with disabilities faced “particular challenges accessing accommodation” and are further marginalized in the workplace by the compounded ableism and racism.

Under its section on women, the report reveals that while female employees make up the majority of staff at the PDSB, they have faced an environment where sexual harassment, sex discrimination and barriers to advancement and a lack of accommodation when pregnant, are present. 

The report details how male colleagues sexually harass and even assault female employees, and that a number of participants said principals sexually harass occasional teachers with the knowledge that “the precarious nature of the jobs mean that these employees are less likely to make a complaint.” 

Even when complaints are made against male employees, “the behaviours continue and the harasser is moved to a new school where the behaviours continue.” 

Some participants even reported that male principals have “suggested to them that they perform sexual favours in exchange for the support of the principal in the promotion process.” 

One participant shared, “I was sexually harassed and the individual’s response was… ‘it’s your word against mine.’ He is in an administrator role now.”

2SLGBTQ+ participants also reported that they face unsafe and “increasingly hostile” work environments at PDSB schools. While students are often the main perpetrators of homophobic and transphobic attitudes, the report highlighted how some school administrators do not know how to address homophobia and transphobia from students and parents, and so they encourage teachers to “remain closeted.” The report notes that being open about their identities is often even more challenging for racialized 2SLGBTQ+ employees.

One participant shared that in their school, “there was a guidance counsellor who was actively counselling students not to be queer as it will upset their parents. This staff person openly said she disagreed with my ‘lifestyle.’ She is now a vice principal.”

Another staffer shared an account of transphobic discrimination, stating, “there is a trans student at my school and while she was transitioning, she asked for staff to use her pronouns. The teachers made fun of the fact that they could not get the pronoun right… I heard a guidance counsellor make fun of her and an administrator make fun of her. When they saw that I was in the meeting where they were making jokes about it, the administrator said, ‘I’m not touching this one.’”

Indigenous, Black and racialized participants shared reports of harassment, hostile work environments, lack of representation and isolation, undermining of their competency and exclusion, among a number of other troubling discriminatory practices. The report outlines how some Black employees who face racist discrimination are able to address the issue, but others indicated they experience worsened harassment after confronting the harasser. 

“Black men in particular noted that they must be particularly cautious with White female teachers,” the report reads, referencing how the “history of the racial and gender dynamic between Black men and White women as well as stereotypes about Black men means that they worry about being seen as the aggressor.” 

One staff member shared his accounts of such discrimination: “I even had one woman say, ‘You know what, I can say this and it’s your word against mine. Let’s face the fact they’re going to take my word over yours.’… [There was] one woman, I just looked at her and she started crying. I had to call the Union right away. Nothing came of it, but it’s just the fact [it happened].”

The complete breakdown in the implementation of critical diversity and equity work comes on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the ESR report found is still impacting many teachers. Staff continue to battle burnout and staff shortages and high turnover has caused employees at PDSB to feel overworked and underappreciated. 

“The pandemic has brought to the fore the need to be more supportive of employee mental and physical health and the need to be flexible in when and how work is completed,” the report states. “This will require a change in the culture of the Human Resources Department, which many have described as dehumanizing and unsupportive, rather than supportive, contributing to the worsening of their mental and physical health.”

The ESR report reveals an astounding number of individual accounts and patterns of discriminatory practices, and systematic issues and barriers within the PDSB. It also shows how the PDSB has demonstrated a continued failure to address issues brought forward by employees. 

The report makes 108 recommendations to the PDSB, which range from educating staff about discriminatory attitudes and practices to conducting ongoing surveys and research of its workforce to assess employee needs and identify areas for improvement in the Board.  It also recommends the PDSB formally inform employees of their rights, and to educate staff on their legal duties to respect employees’ rights in the workplace. It also makes recommendations to revise and improve a number of existing workplace policies at the PDSB, among many other recommendations. 

The workplace census reaffirmed something community members and advocates have known for some time; board staff do not reflect the students they serve. The census identified a staff complement that is 52 percent white, compared to 13 percent of students. Over half of the student body, 51 percent, are South Asian. 

Tim Vining with Advocacy Peel, who has a background in employment equity work, told The Pointer the disparity identified between racialized staff and students is “profound” and “there’s going to be a lot of work that we need to do in order to achieve equity so there’s representation of the students among the faculty and among the leadership.”

“This is core to the educational experience of the student that we change those numbers so that the faculty, and all of staff, but especially the faculty who they sit in the classroom with each day, that they actually reflect their experiences. That is crucial,” he said. 

In response to the overrepresentation of White staff and underrepresentation of racialized staff revealed in the Workforce Census, Vining said he has heard from racialized students about the effects these disparities can have on the student body. 

“I have spoken to students, Black students, who told me that they went through the entire system and never had a Black teacher. I don’t think you will find one White student who’s never had a White teacher,” he said. 

The Pointer requested comment from the PDSB regarding the findings of the ESR report, including findings that suggest the PDSB is “at risk of a successful human rights complaint,” as written in the ESR report. In an email, a spokesperson for the PDSB responded that “The Peel District School Board is committed to implementing deep and sustainable change through our policies, processes, and procedures to create and ensure inclusive and equitable learning and working environments for all students and staff.”

“As we engage in a significant culture shift across our school board, we acknowledge that changes take time, and we remain steadfast each step of the way,” the spokesperson said.

Email: hafsa.ahmed@thepointer.com

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By Hafsa Ahmed, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 03, 2023 at 14:13

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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