Hamilton

Hamilton trustees made racist comments about Black and Muslim people, silenced student: review finds

A review of allegations of racism raised by former student trustee Ahona Mehdi at Hamilton's public school board has found she was, at times, silenced and singled out. It also found trustees made racist comments about Black and Muslim people and didn't understand the concept of equity.

'We failed,' says board chair. Trustees will adopt all 12 recommendations from report, she says.

A report into Ahona Mehdi's allegations of racism and oppression based on her experience as a student trustee with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for the 2019-2020 school year found a trustee silenced her and singled her out. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

An independent investigation into allegations of racism at a southern Ontario school board found trustees made racist comments and singled out a student trustee.

The report released Wednesday afternoon says Ahona Mehdi was, at times, silenced during her term as student trustee with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB). The report also states trustees made racist comments about Black and Muslim people and didn't understand the concept of equity.   

The board has voted to adopt all 12 report recommendations — which address governance as well as equity, diversity and inclusion — put together by Toronto law firm Koskie Minsky, hired last summer to investigate Mehdi's allegations.

CBC has reached out to Mehdi for a response to Wednesday's developments. 

Earlier in the day she retweeted a post by the student advocacy organization Hamilton Students for Justice that announced the report would be released. "Today's the day!" wrote Mehdi in her tweet. "The school board has been moving extremely quickly & will be releasing the report within the next hour."

Mehdi is a first-generation Canadian who served as a student trustee during the 2019-2020 school year and graduated from high school in 2020.

The board obtained the law firm to investigate about six months ago, after Mehdi and Ruby Hye, another former trustee, shared concerns about their experiences.

Silencing, racism and lack of training

In the lead up to a Safe Schools Panel board meeting on Oct. 28. 2019, the report shows a trustee singled out Mehdi by editing a statement the teen had prepared, to remove any reference to Mehdi's personal experiences.

The report outlines other incidents, including the following chain of events involving discussions over a police school liason program in Hamilton:

  • When Mehdi wanted to prepare a motion to terminate the police liaison program in mid-June 2020, she was asked to do so under the supervision of that same trustee, as well as a staff member, which "is inconsistent with the autonomy the student trustee holds as a member of the board representing student interests," the report says.
     
  • When that motion was ready, despite insufficient governance, training or guidance provided to Mehdi, the trustee would not accept it because it was late, even though she would have had enough support to submit it, it says.
     
  • The trustee, who the report refers to as chair of the board at the time, "acted deliberately and arbitrarily in denying the complainant's written notice of motion, and in a manner that was inconsistent with past board practices, which allowed for late submissions," it says.
     
  • Shortly after that, during a subsequent meeting to discuss ending the police liaison program, two trustees were heard saying "comments to the effect ...  of all lives matter," and another trustee dismissed community advocates as "Twitter trolls," the report says.  The investigators found trustees "knew or ought to have known that their comments were not only insensitive but expressions of anti-Black racism."

'Overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks'

At a different time another trustee was also found to have said "overtly anti-Muslim and racist remarks" and displayed "a problematic attitude toward equity issues" during meetings, the report says.

A trustee also "lacked a basic understanding of equity diversity and inclusion principles" while speaking about creating an Indigenous student trustee position, saying the position would be inequitable.

Another finding from the investigation states trustees didn't get sufficient governance training — on rules and protocols for tasks such as preparing motions — or equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training.

At the end of her term with the board, Mehdi issued a tweet that said she felt she had served as the board's "token for student voice & diversity." 

12 recommendations and apology from chair

Recently elected HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said she has issued a formal apology to Mehdi. She also said trustees were "shocked" and "saddened" while reading the report.

"We are committed to making sure every student, every employee [and] every community member has the right to feel safe and welcome," she said Wednesday. "The report shows that it's very clear we failed to do that for our former student trustee Ahona Mehdi."

The report recommends annual governance training, more support and mentorship for student trustees and mandatory ongoing EDI training for all trustees.

Board trustees voted to adopt and act on all the recommendations. The motion, approved last night, also said staff will report back with "what is actionable within the recommendations and no further sanctions be made."

Dawn Danko, chair of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said trustees are committed to making changes in light of the report. (Submitted by Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board)

Danko said there are systemic issues and biases the board needs to face head-on now that they have been brought to light.

"I think the investigator really saw where we have practices in place that ultimately can lead to silencing someone like our student trustee," she said.

Danko said she wants an external investigator with knowledge of EDI, anti-Black racism and oppression to review policies for the trustees and change the system.

"It's absolutely critical we start this work, we do it quickly and that we hold ourselves accountable for it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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