Toronto

Toronto school board apologizes for keeping quiet about 'anti-Black racism' at Parkdale school

The Toronto District School Board is apologizing for not doing more to address what it says was "clearly an incident of anti-Black racism" at a Parkdale elementary school.

Parent group at Queen Victoria Public School says anonymous letter threatened to get 'rid' of black teachers

Parents Naiomi Joseph (left) Debbie King (centre) and Anna Dobie (right) were horrified by the contents of an anonymous letter specifically targeting black staff members at Queen Victoria Public School. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC )

The Toronto District School Board is apologizing for not doing more to address what it says was "clearly an incident of anti-Black racism" at a Parkdale elementary school.

The TDSB has not confirmed specifics of the incident that prompted its apology, but it comes after an anonymous letter surfaced specifically targeting black staff members at the Queen Victoria Public School (QVPS), taunting one of them and threatening to get "rid" of others.  

A copy of that letter, apparently sent to a black administrator, was shared online by the QVPS Black Student Success Committee, which identifies itself as a group of parents concerned with supporting the well-being of black students at the school.

In it, the sender writes: "I'm so happy to see you leave. You and your little crew that make everything about black this and black that. So what, white people don't count?"

The sender goes on to suggest he or she managed to have two of the staff members removed from the school. "Just have few more on the list to go."

Debbie King, a parent who sits on the Black Student Success Committee, said the letter is "absolutely appalling." 

"The reaction of every parent that saw it was a combination of heartbreak, sadness, anger, and disbelief that this could be happening in our community," she said. 

The TDSB acknowledged in its own letter to parents Monday that it 'could have done more' to support the staff affected and to inform the broader school community about the incident sooner. Parents were first notified of the incident in a letter on April 24.  (Toronto District School Board)

Board criticized for not informing parents

On its Twitter account, the parent group blasted the board for making "no effort" to inform parents and guardians or "protect" black students after the incident, which it called a human rights violation.

"We expect the board to address parents/guardians immediately via a formal communication that includes context and details of the incident, responses to all questions ... and an apology for this disgusting occurrence and its cover up," the group tweeted on April 21. 

Although the TDSB has not identified who wrote the letter, King says it's clear that it is a staff member, based on that person's knowledge of the school. 

"We've put our students at risk by having a racist person on staff in this school who is actively interacting with them," King said. 

"The safety of our children has been at risk all this time while we continue to send them to school," said Debbie King. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Anna Dobie, a member of the QVPS parent council, said she was also dismayed to see the letter kept secret for so long. 

"We need to see follow through, and we need continuous updates on this situation," she said. 

On April 24, the Black Student Success Committee wrote to the TDSB raising a number of questions, including when the board was informed of the letter, what supports were offered to the teachers targeted and those still working in "a poisoned work environment."

The also asked how parents could have confidence in the board's anti-black racism policy when it "disempowered" the victims of the incident by "silencing" them. 

'We could have done more'

The TDSB said it kept silent to protect investigations into the incident, but acknowledged in its own letter to parents Monday that it could have acted sooner to support staff members who were affected.

"The staff members that were identified in this letter are victims of racism and have been deeply impacted. While we have made attempts to support these staff members directly involved in this incident of anti-Black racism, we know that we could have done more," the letter reads.

"For that we apologize."

The board also apologized for not informing the broader school community about the incident sooner. Parents were first notified of the incident in a letter on April 24. 

The school board said the black staff members named in the anonymous letter first became aware of it in late January, and that the board acted "immediately" by launching an investigation and informing police.

Toronto police say they "are aware of a criminal harassment report where a letter was sent to the school" and are working to determine with the lead investigator if the incident is being treated as a hate crime. 

"While multiple investigations into this act were unfolding, we did our very best to protect the integrity of those investigations," the school board said in its letter.

As a result, the board says it is now changing its procedures so that school communities affected by incidents like this one are informed as soon as board staff are aware, barring direction from law enforcement agencies. 

It also says its human rights office has launched a separate investigation based on information received just before schools closed as part of the province's COVID-19 response. 

Still not known who wrote letter

Based on the information gathered in its preliminary investigation, the board says it has not yet determined who wrote or sent the letter and that no teacher has been removed from the school. 

Some staff members are currently on leaves of absence, but who they are and the reasons for the leaves isn't being shared "out of respect for their privacy," the letter says. The school's principal will also be on leave with a retired principal and two vice principals in charge while the investigations continue. 

"The principles of human rights, equity and anti-racism are central to all the work that happens in our Board," the TDSB says. 

"We do not tolerate anti-Black racism or any other form of hate or discrimination. We acknowledge and recognize that while we have made some progress in these areas, there is still much work to be done to create schools and workplaces that are truly safe, welcoming and equitable for all." 

The parent group welcomed the response from the TDSB, but said there remains much more to do.

"The letter is a start," the group said in a tweet Tuesday.

"They now must work harder, smarter and together to make school safe [for] our children's return."

Parent and committee member Naiomi Joseph echoed that sentiment. 

"I just want [students] to be in a safe and welcoming environment," she told CBC Toronto. "Because we're not going anywhere." 

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp

now