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Edmonton school board trustee resigns after remarks about refugee students

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An Edmonton Public School Board trustee has resigned over comments she made about refugee students. As Kendra Slugoski explains, the school board called Cheryl Johner's comments "racist." – Jun 24, 2020

Cheryl Johner, a trustee in Ward A with Edmonton Public Schools, resigned Wednesday after making controversial comments about refugee students at a board meeting Tuesday.

EPSB members were voting on the school resource officer program. The board decided to call for an independent, third-party review of the program. EPSB will also investigate the placement of police officers in schools who have disciplinary issues.

Read more: Edmontonians address police response and budget during public hearing

Trustees voted not to suspend the program while the review is conducted.

However, the tied vote stirred up some controversy after Johner, who voted to keep the officers in place, made the following comments:

“My mind goes to the number of refugee students that come into our district that are from war-torn countries that have never known school before arriving here. All they’ve known is violence.

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“When those students sometimes enter our schools, they can be violent there as well,” she said.

“I feel that the safety of students is critically important — that other students feel safe as they go to their own schools. The officers act as a deterrent, they can respond quickly to de-escalate situations when needed,” Johner said.

Read more: Students lead charge to have more Black history taught in Canadian schools to fight racism

Her comment drew plenty of negative reaction, with several people describing it as racist, while calling on Johner to resign.

On Wednesday, she issued a letter of resignation.

“At yesterday’s board meeting, I made remarks about refugee students. My comments were inappropriate and immediately regrettable. I take full responsibility for what I said and sincerely apologize for the hurt and upset I have caused our families, students, staff and community members,” Johner wrote.

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“My statement in yesterday’s meeting does not reflect the care I feel for all students and families in the division. Throughout my time as a trustee, I have tried to be a passionate defender of the rights and safety of all children, and an advocate for safe, inclusive learning environments. I recognize my words yesterday do not reflect these actions and I deeply regret this.

“I have decided to resign from my position of trustee for Ward A, effective immediately.

“I know the division and the board of trustees will continue their critical work of addressing systematic racism in Edmonton Public Schools and our society,” Johner wrote.

Read more: How are Calgary schools incorporating more anti-racism teaching and training?

Edmonton Public Schools’ board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Johner’s resignation was the right move.

“The resignation of Trustee Johner is important.

“What she said is racist, it’s wrong and it’s completely unacceptable.”

Estabrooks said while acknowledgment is important, it can’t stop there. Action has to be taken, which is why Johner resigned. Furthermore, the board and district must reflect and learn, she said.

“Important conversations will continue about how Edmonton Public needs to address systemic racism in our schools.

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“Racist language shouldn’t be tolerated ever. As a board of trustees, we need to reflect on this moment. We need to reflect on the fact that this was said at a public board meeting and we need to learn from it, in the same way that so many people in our society are learning and reflecting.”

Estabrooks said she didn’t hear Johner’s comment when it was made during the school board debate. She listened back later, though.

“I didn’t hear it, quite frankly. It’s on all of us, though. If you hear a racist remark, you have to act on it… When I did go back and listen and heard what was said, I was upset. It is unacceptable, it is racist, it is wrong. Her resignation is the right step forward.

“I know Trustee Johner personally as both a friend and a colleague and I know she feels deep regret and sorrow about those comments.

“It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re harmful. I know they harmed families and students and staff in our division. And they’re hurtful.

“It doesn’t take away from the fact that she said them and the important step of acknowledging that that’s not right, which has led to her resignation.”

When it comes to replacing Johner, Estabrooks said it was “highly unlikely” EBSB would hold a byelection for Ward A, which Johner represented for about 10 years.

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