Toronto human rights lawyer to investigate racism allegations at Hamilton school board

An independent third-party investigation into allegations of racism at Hamilton's public school board is now underway. Don Mitchell / Global News

Allegations of racism lodged against members of Hamilton’s public school board are now the subject of an independent review.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) said it would be launching a third-party code of conduct review after Ahona Mehdi, an outgoing student trustee, took to Twitter to share her experiences of racism and discrimination during her tenure.

The lawyer appointed to lead the independent review is Arleen Huggins, a Partner at Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto, who recently authored a report on the Peel District School Board that determined the board failed to address anti-Black racism.

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the HWDSB, said the first step in the investigation will involve Huggins meeting with Mehdi to find out the “who, what, where and when” of the allegations.

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Figueiredo also said he’s been asking himself “why” student voices aren’t being heard and how leaders are contributing to the systemic barriers and biases within the institution.

“If these students are feeling this way, we need to ask ourselves, why? What systemic issues are getting in the way?” Figueiredo explained during an interview on Global News Radio 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show.

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“You’re going to see a commitment from me and the senior team this year to start thinking about this deeply. If we’re really committed to all students achieving their potential and achieving outcomes, we have to look seriously at the systemic barriers that we may be creating, consciously or unconsciously, that (are) getting in the way.”

One barrier that Figueiredo acknowledged is a lack of diversity among teachers, staff, and trustees at Hamilton schools.

According to a recent hiring equity audit, the staff at HWDSB schools have not accurately reflected the number of Black and racialized students in the city.

Figueiredo said that while the numbers had gradually started to increase over the past year, the lack of representation among staff represents a “systemic challenge,” adding that the audit would be publicly released.

He also lamented the fact that Mehdi took to Twitter with her concerns.

“If the student had to resort to that type of … public allegation, what’s the process that we have? Why didn’t they feel they could trust us, to come to us?

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“So we’re going to be seriously looking at our complaint process, especially around issues of equity and human rights, and make very visible what that complaint process might be if the traditional one is not working for our students.”

In the thread posted on Twitter at the beginning of August, Mehdi described the board as “a disgustingly racist and oppressive institution.”

Allegations included a white trustee using the N-word in reference to Serena Williams, a white trustee claiming there was “too much Black leadership” at the board, and another who insinuated that Arabs and Muslims were evil.

Mehdi told Global News that she and her fellow student trustees felt like the role was simply one of ‘tokenism’ and that their voices didn’t actually matter.

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“We are elected by students, we’re the only ones who understand the experiences of students directly, but we ourselves do not have a vote at the board table,” said Mehdi. “Consistently, we’re filtered, we’re silenced, we’re told how to speak, what to speak about. And if that’s the case, there kind of is no point in having a student trustee at all.”

Once the independent review is complete, it will be released to the public, with its findings to be discussed during an upcoming board meeting.

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