Ottawa

OCDSB disciplines trustee over 'racially insensitive' remarks to Black teen

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board formally censured Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee Donna Blackburn for making “racially insensitive” remarks to a Black teenager while confronting him for not abiding by physical distancing rules.

Trustee Donna Blackburn banned from committee meetings, asked to resign

An investigator found OCDSB trustee Donna Blackburn acted in a 'racially insensitive' manner when she suggested to a 17-year-old boy playing basketball during the COVID-19 pandemic that people who don't follow the rules could end up in jail. (CBC)

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) formally disciplined Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee Donna Blackburn Monday for making "racially insensitive" remarks to a Black teenager while confronting him for not abiding by physical distancing rules earlier this year.

Nine of its 12 trustees determined she violated the board's code of conduct March 27 when she admonished Styles Lepage, 17, for playing basketball at a Barrhaven park against the city's COVID-19 rules and posted a photo of the encounter on Facebook.

"With this particular incident she really has lost the authority to be a trustee," said Kanata North/Kanata South trustee Christine Boothby, who brought forward the initial complaint that led to a third-party investigation.

"This has been a terrible stain on [the] OCDSB."

As punishment, trustees voted to ban Blackburn from sitting on multiple OCDSB committees for a six-month period and recommended she resign.

The representative for a western Ottawa zone, first elected in 2010, also won't be allowed to attend the board's next budget meeting.

Trustees said Blackburn's behaviour had severely damaged trust with the OCDSB community, especially with those from the Black community.

Blackburn sat through the entire meeting but could not participate in the debate because of board rules. 

Happened same day courts were closed

In her post, Blackburn wrote she had confronted the teen at Neill Nesbitt Park because sport courts were closed because of COVID-19.

"This kid has been playing for over an hour and won't leave," Blackburn wrote in the post, which included a photo of the teen.

"I have called by-law and will stand here until they come … I will follow him home if I have to."

Blackburn claimed she was acting as a concerned citizen but Lepage alleged she singled him out while he played basketball alone because others were playing soccer and baseball in the park.

OCDSB trustee Donna Blackburn posted this message on social media on March 27, 2020. (Facebook)

Lawyer and investigator Zaheer Lakhani concluded Blackburn did not target Lepage because he was Black, as the teen's father alleged, but that she acted inappropriately when she told Lepage that if he didn't follow the rules he would end up at Innes Road — a reference to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

"I don't believe, based on the evidence, that he was targeted or singled out based on his race but I believe the comments and the actions that were directed to him meet the definition of racial insensitivity," Lakhani told the board.

Lakhani said it was reasonable that Lepage did not know that public parks were closed, as the city had only made the announcement closing them that day.

The father of Styles Lepage, 17, previously told CBC that the teenager sought out an empty basketball court to get some exercise by himself. (Matthew Kedroe)

Board wants more powers

This is the second time in three years that Blackburn has been sanctioned by her colleagues. The board previously censured Blackburn in 2018 over a "disrespectful" email she sent to a fellow trustee.

Several trustees wanted to take further action but were advised by a board lawyer that they were considering the harshest sanctions allowed under the provincial Education Act.

Board chair Lynn Scott said existing legislation was insufficient for dealing with board members accused of inappropriate behaviour because their options for punishment are limited in scope and don't include alternatives that are remedial or restorative.

She presented a motion calling on the Ontario Public School Board Association, which represents public school boards, to advocate for expanded authority to address inappropriate behaviour by trustees.

The motion, which passed, says a review of the effectiveness of school boards' code of conduct policies could produce useful suggestions for improvements to provincial law.

Lepage's family lawyer said in a statement they appreciate that the board imposed the most serious sanctions possible.

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