Senior educator speaks out against York school board on handling of racism, Islamophobia

A veteran educator who was hired to help make the York Region District School Board more inclusive is accusing the board of cancelling a long list of equity initiatives, and failing to properly address Facebook posts by a school principal that he labelled "blatantly Islamophobic."

Letter from Cecil Roach lists equity initiatives that he says have been cancelled by board

Cecil Roach, the superintendent of equity in the YRDSB since August 2011, has accused the board of failing to properly handle Facebook posts by a school principal that he described as "blatantly Islamaphobic. (Twitter)

A veteran educator who was hired to help make the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) more inclusive has written a strongly-worded letter accusing the board of cancelling a long list of equity initiatives, and failing to properly address Facebook posts by a school principal that he labelled "blatantly Islamophobic."

Cecil Roach, the Coordinating Superintendent for Equity and Community Services at the board, wrote that though he "strongly feared reprisal" for speaking out, after consulting with a lawyer he felt he had a "legal obligation to speak up on these issues."

Roach had 'nothing to do' with investigation into principal's Facebook posts

Roach's letter, addressed to senior team members and dated Nov. 14, began by addressing the controversial Facebook posts made by YRDSB elementary school principal Ghada Sadaka.

Sadaka published an apology online last week after facing criticism about the posts from parents and students, who saw them as racist. The posts discussed topics like Islam, refugees and burkas.

He said that throughout the Sadaka saga, ongoing for the last two months, his opinion or input were never sought by the YRDSB, despite the fact that he raised concerns at two senior team meetings about the board's handling of the issue.

"I have had no input into decision regarding what is clearly an equity issue," he said. "I have had nothing to do with the management of this file."

In a news release put out with Sadaka's apology last week, YRDSB Director of Education J. Philip Parapally stressed the pride his board takes in being one of the "few boards in the province" that has allocated a Coordinating Superintendent of Equity and Community Services.

But Roach said he hasn't been able to work fully on his official role since November 2015, when he was "reassigned to manage student discipline for all students in the YRDSB."

"This is a massive undertaking with lots of work around expulsion hearings, mediations, readmission meetings," he said. "Clearly, there are equity issues within the student discipline file, but this reassignment has nothing to do with my named role."

In response to Roach's letter, Parapally said "measures and procedures have to be and are undertaken to mitigate or remediate the issue of discrimination, including anti-Black racism and Islamophobia, in our learning and working environments."

Parapally noted that student discipline "is an integral component of our equity work and will continue to be going forward."

Mom: 'We're not alone'

Charline Grant told CBC Toronto she felt relieved after seeing Roach's letter to the board. 

Her family launched a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario last February, after more than a dozen alleged incidents involving her eldest son, a high school student in York Region. 

"I finally feel like we're not alone," said Grant, a commercial real estate agent with three kids.

Charline Grant, a mother of three, says she hopes Roach's letter will prompt other parents to come forward and share their experiences with the York Region District School Board. (Craig Chivers / CBC News)

Grant alleges the teen faced racial discrimination, harassment, bullying and intimidation at the hands of school staff.

"My son's experiences are from the teachers. Kids came to him and said they're being racist," said Grant. 

"I'm a mother and I'm fighting for basic human rights for my child," she said, her voice breaking. "No kid should have to go to school constantly looking over his shoulder."

Board cancelled, shelved equity initiatives, Roach says

Roach listed a number of equity initiatives that he said the board either shut down or allowed to fizzle out.

Some examples include:

  • A consultation between the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the board was cancelled, and requests from the community to meet with the Director of Education were ignored.
  • A page on religious accommodation meant to be included in student agendas was removed without consultation.
  • A three-day equity course for staff facilitators that Roach helped develop was cancelled despite his objections.
  • Roach's push to label the use of the word "n--ger as "racism" as opposed to "racial bullying" were met with anger and accusations from the director of education..
  • Work by a YRDSB LGTBQ committee was "effectively stopped."

Roach ends his letter calling for the YRDSB to "commit to explicit and deliberate work to create safe and respectful places of learning."

In his response, Parappally said that the board takes the concerns outlined in Roach's letter "seriously and will continue our commitment to equity as a foundational practice.

"Going forward, the Board is committed to further reviewing our equity practices and what can be done to ensure that we are a leader in equity in Canada."