Student trustee wants board members removed, transparent investigation into racism allegations

Ahona Mehdi was one of two student trustees who served on the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board during the 2019-2020 school year and described her time in the role as the "most patronizing experience of my life."

HWDSB hopes to hire consultant to lead investigation sometime in next 2 weeks

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)

A former student trustee with Hamilton's public school board is demanding the investigation into allegations of racism she raised be transparent and that the trustees involved be removed from their roles.

Ahona Mehdi was one of two student trustees who served on the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) during the 2019-2020 school year. On Saturday she posted a series of tweets describing her time in the role as the "most patronizing experience of my life" and detailing allegations of racism.

The board responded that same day, releasing a statement on social media that referred to the allegations as "deeply disturbing" and pledging a third-party investigation.

Mehdi is a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help, a group that has raised issues with racism at the board in recent years and advocates for marginalized students. On Monday they hosted a press conference at HWDSB headquarters and made the following demands:

  • Transparency, as well as public and student consultation on all equity and anti-racism training provided to trustees.
  • Transparency around the investigation, including who is leading it, what they're looking into and ensuring that their full report is released to the public and students.
  • Trustees involved in "blatantly anti-Black and racist incidents" be "impeached" immediately.

"When it comes to overt and explicit acts of racism, there's no place for that among our board of trustees," said Mehdi, surrounded by supporters. 

"They are making policy that's impacting our racialized and marginalized students. If these people are making decisions for our students, our students are ... going to be unsafe."

Mehdi was joined by Ruby Hye, a student trustee in 2017-2018. Hye also spoke about feeling as though they were being used as a token for diversity.

"It was clear to me that trustees didn't want my role as trustee to be one of advocating for students, but one where I kept my head down and did not speak up," Hye said. "The environment for me to safely discuss racism and how racism informs policy and operates in the school board did not and does not exist."

HWDSB chair Alex Johstone and director of education Manny Figueiredo both attended the media event where they were called out by name and challenged to take action.

"As a board of trustees we must and we will do better," said Johnstone. "That starts with holding ourselves accountable."

Ruby Hye, who served as a student trustee in 2017-201, also shared concerns based on her time with the board. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She described being shocked and saddened by what Mehdi shared and said the board is committed to making things right.

"Clearly what's been brought up today is that there needs to be an entire cultural shift both systematically and there are concerns that need to be addressed at the individual level."

Figueiredo said he's been in contact with the Ministry of Education and Ontario's Anti-Racism Directorate for help with the investigation and finding someone with a "strong equity and anti-racism lens" to lead it.

The board itself would have to decide on any action toward any trustees.

"Once the investigation is done there are sanctions the board of trustees could implement based on what's discovered," he explained, adding those sanctions could include censuring trustees as well as barring them from participating in any board or trustee committees.

HWDSB Director of Education Manny Figueiredo said the board hopes to hire a consultant to lead the investigation in the next two weeks. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The director said he's hoping to name a consultant in the next two weeks and complete the process by the end of the fall, saying it's important it take place as soon as possible.

"They're challenging us to say at what point is enough, enough and we're going to take action. And we've got to respond to that."

During the press conference, Mehdi spoke about specific racist incidents, but did not name any of the trustees involved, saying only that they were white and that each alleged act was witnessed by other trustees who did nothing.

One of the situations she described was an incident before her first board meeting where a trustee allegedly referred to tennis star Serena Williams using the "N-word."

Following the press conference, Batool Dahab, a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help, confronted Johnstone, alleging the board chair was present when the slur was used and suggesting that she said nothing to the trustee who said it.

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

Figueiredo speaks with former students, including Mehdi and members of HWDSB Kids Need Help, following their press conference Monday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Mehdi said she she's not asking for sympathy, personal justice or pity. Instead she's hoping speaking out will bring change at the board.

"I hope that for once they choose to hear us and I hope that for once they actually take action with the intent of being better."