The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is apologizing to a former student trustee after an independent review into allegations of racism at the board.
The review was prompted by allegations posted on Twitter last summer by former Westmount Secondary School student Ahona Mehdi, who said she experienced racism and discrimination during her tenure as a student trustee.
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A 67-page report released on Wednesday found that Mehdi “faced censorship” and was “subjected to efforts to silence her voice” when she tried to speak up on issues related to race.
The report was written by human rights lawyer Arlene Huggins, a partner at Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto, and Philip Graham, a senior associate at Koskie Minsky.
The report examined five areas related to Mehdi’s allegations — a lack of governance and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) training, silencing, racial gaslighting, microaggressions, and issues with a specific trustee referred to throughout the report as ‘Trustee 4.’
The report found that one trustee tried to prevent Mehdi from speaking about her personal experiences with bullying during the Oct. 28, 2019 board meeting, which addressed the creation of the Safe Schools Panel following the death of Devan Selvey outside Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School earlier that month.
It also said that, while ‘Trustee 1’ — who is also referred to as the board chair in the report — did contact both student trustees prior to the Oct. 28 meeting, only Mehdi was asked to submit her questions for review and revise what she intended to say about the Safe Schools Panel, which the report said had the effect of singling her out and silencing her.
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Huggins and Graham also reviewed Mehdi’s attempts to bring a motion forward at a June 2020 meeting to eliminate the Hamilton Police liaison officer program in the city’s public schools.
In their review of the evidence, the report’s authors determined that ‘Trustee 1’ misrepresented and inconsistently applied the board’s governance rules in order to prevent that motion from going forward.
“It is the finding of the Investigator that Trustee 1’s conduct regarding the Complainant, specifically her efforts to censor the Complainant, both in terms of her comments at key Board meetings and preventing the Complainant’s amendment and subsequent motion from being heard, is consistent with past conduct relayed to the Investigator by several witnesses,” reads the report.
“In short, the evidence suggests that Trustee 1 has utilized her position as Chair to attempt to and/or prevent matters that are inconsistent with her own agenda from being tabled and/or discussed at Board meetings.”
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Other allegations involved remarks made by specific trustees at the June 2020 board meeting during which the board opted to end the police liaison program.
Investigators quoted in the report said witnesses described that meeting as “tense” and “emotional,” with some trustees questioning whether the board was valuing the perspectives of specific marginalized students over others.
“Given the nature of the agenda topics … together with the civil rights unrest happening globally at that time in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, the Investigator finds that the Trustees knew or ought to have known that their comments were not only insensitive but expressions of anti-Black racism,” reads the report.
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Other allegations were specific to a trustee referred to as ‘Trustee 4’ who is said to have frequently made anti-Muslim remarks and made comments about there being “too much Black leadership” at the board.
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That same trustee is also alleged to have criticized the creation of an anti-Black racism procedure during a Human Rights and Equity Advisory (HREA) Committee meeting in December 2019 and expressed concerns about the committee not doing enough to address anti-Semitism in schools.
Witnesses told investigators that ‘Trustee 4’ would “sigh and show exasperation” during discussions about anti-Black racism, and abruptly left a HREA Committee meeting in June 2020 when the topic of the police liaison program came up.
“On a balance of probabilities, the Investigator finds that Trustee 4 made overtly anti-Muslim and
racist remarks in conversation with other Trustees,” the report reads.
“Furthermore, that Trustee 4 displayed a problematic attitude towards equity issues in Board and committee meetings.”
Another allegation, which involved ‘Trustee 3’ allegedly using a racial slur to describe tennis player Serena Williams, was not confirmed by the report.
“The Investigator finds that there is insufficient evidence to support this allegation,” reads the report, saying none of the witnesses could recall hearing that language used by the trustee in question or any discussion about Williams at the event.
Recommendations and HWDSB’s response
The report issued twelve recommendations to HWDSB, including mandatory governance training for all trustees and student trustees, mandatory EDI training for all trustees and student trustees on an annual basis, and an external review — with an EDI focus — of all Board policies and procedures in order to “identify and remove systemic barriers and discriminatory biases and practices.”
In a statement issued alongside the report and the recommendations, HWDSB said it’s fully committed to implementing all twelve recommendations outlined in the report.
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“Confronting systemic and anti-Black racism is a challenge for all of us,” the statement reads. “But one we must meet head on, not only as individuals, but also a Board.”
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HWDBS chair Dawn Danko, who was appointed to the position late last year after trustee Alex Johnstone stepped down as chair, said she’s issued a formal apology to Mehdi and hopes they can prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else in the future.
“I think it’s particularly difficult, just knowing that someone that was at our table — that was part of our team — didn’t feel safe, didn’t feel included, didn’t feel valued,” said Danko during an interview on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that was anyone’s intent, but that was her experience. And that is really difficult to break down and to take away.”
Danko added that the board is taking collective responsibility for what happened, as opposed to singling out any particular trustees for whatever role they might have played in the allegations.
“The independent investigator did have the ability to recommend independent sanctions for individuals, and that didn’t happen,” said Danko.
“Instead, it’s a focus on [doing] what we need to do as a board to make sure that we are collectively responsible and accountable for making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Hamilton Students For Justice, formerly known as HWDSB Kids Need Help, announced late Wednesday that they would be holding a press conference on Thursday morning alongside Mehdi to address the report’s findings.
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