Most trustees aren't commenting on allegations of racism at Hamilton public school board

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has pledged a third-party investigation into racist statements Ahona Mehdi alleges she witnessed during her time as a student trustee.

Board says allegations raised by former student trustees are 'deeply disturbing'

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has announced a third-party investigation into allegations of racism raised by a former student trustee. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Members of Hamilton's public school board are remaining tight-lipped following allegations of racism raised by an outgoing student trustee.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has pledged a third-party investigation into statements and experiences shared by Ahona Mehdi on social media and during a press conference Monday.

In a series of tweets posted Saturday, Mehdi, 17, described her time with the board as the "most patronizing experience of my life" and said she's "beyond grateful to no longer serve as the board's token for student voice & diversity."

She also detailed several incidents of racism allegedly involving trustees, including alleging a trustee referred to tennis star Serena Williams using the "N-word."

On Monday Mehdi, along with another former student trustee named Ruby Hye and HWDSB Kids Need Help — a group that has raised concerns about racism with the board in recent years — released a set of demands, including transparency in the board's investigation and the removal of any trustees involved in "blatantly anti-Black and racist incidents."

The board described their accounts as "deeply disturbing" and said it has reached out to the Ministry of Education and the province's anti-racism directorate for help hiring an independent investigator with the goal of beginning the probe as soon as possible.

CBC News contacted each trustee by phone and email asking a series of questions including whether they made the alleged statements and whether they were present when any of the statements were allegedly said.

As of Thursday morning, seven of the 11 trustees have responded, all of whom declined to directly address the first two questions and citing the investigation and referring to statements shared by board chair Alex Johnstone and director of education Manny Figueiredo.

Johnstone is among those replied, saying she would not comment because of the investigation. But on Monday following the press conference, a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help alleged she had been present during the incident where the N-word was reportedly used.

"I personally don't remember, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I'm not trying to deny it," Johnstone said at the time, adding she did not want to comment further and was focused on listening to student concerns.

Ward 4 trustee Ray Mulholland, Ward 5 trustee Carole Paikin Miller, Ward 15 trustee Penny Deathe and Ward 13 trustee Paul Tut have not responded to questions posed to them by CBC.

Tut, however, did share a statement on Twitter on August 2 saying he experienced racism growing up and is "devastated" any student would still be suffering the same.

"Any person in a position of power, any trustee who has used racist language must be immediately removed from their HWDSB position," he wrote. "If we purport that racism isn't tolerated we must SHOW our students and community it isn't."

Tut also stood behind Mehdi in solidarity during the press conference Sunday, along with Ward 9 and 10 trustee Cam Galindo, Ward 3 trustee Maria Felix Miller and Cameron Prosic, the other former student trustee.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Miller said he would not comment on the allegations until after the investigation was completed, but did address the question of whether or not he was present when any of the alleged racist statements were made.

"I will say I do not use racial slurs," she said.  "I'm looking forward to the investigation and very supportive of the process."

Galindo also said Tuesday that he would not comment on the specific allegations to ensure the investigation would not be affected.

But, like Miller, he did address the question of whether or not he could recall any of the allegedly racist statements being made.

"Do I remember this happening? No, because if I did I would have said something," he said. "That's not to take away from their experience though."

Galindo added he was elected as a trustee in 2018 and quickly "became clear to me that I don't look like your typical trustee.

Ahona Mehdi, 17, has raised allegations of racism and oppression based on her experience as a student trustee with the HWDSB for the 2019-2020 school year. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As is the case in most political institutions in Hamilton the representation doesn't necessarily represent the makeup of the community," he said, explaining he came to Canada as a refugee from Columbia when he was seven.

The Ward 9 and 10 trustee said he stands with the former student trustees and that it "breaks my heart" to hear about their experience.

"No student should ever have to face racism, oppression, tokenism, homophobia, microagressions or ever feel unsafe. Especially when it comes to our student trustees," said Galindo.

"There are legitimate questions around how we hold trustees and staff accountable and what happens next."