Trustees sanctioned by Hamilton’s public school board, one asked to resign

Don Mitchell / Global News

Two of four trustees accused by a former student of failing to adhere to code of conduct rules were handed sanctions during a Hamilton public school board meeting on Thursday night, with one being asked to resign.

Former Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Alex Johnstone and Carole Paikin-Miller were the only trustees who faced penalties as a result of a third-party review that found merit to a student trustee’s claims of racism and censorship.

Johnstone was told by current chair Dawn Danko that she would be barred from holding any chair position on a committee until December 2021 and would be required to engage in equity, governance, and anti-racism training as a result of conduct breaches.

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Paikin-Miller was also asked to engage in equity, governance, and anti-racism training, barred from sitting on any committees until December 2021, and was given the recommendation that she resign.

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In a statement, the board characterized the resignation recommendation as an opportunity to “uphold its integrity and dignity.”

Both trustees also received letters of reprimand and were asked to provide a formal apology.

Trustees Becky Buck and Kathy Archer were found not to have violated code of conduct rules and are not facing sanctions.

Thursday’s actions are in response to accusations from former student trustee Ahona Mehdi who revealed in August she faced racism and discrimination during her tenure.

Medhi, and several other groups — including the public board’s elementary and high school teachers’ unions — had been calling for the board members’ resignations amid the allegations.

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Vice-chair Cam Galindo, who was one of the trustees supporting Paikin-Miller’s departure, said the board needs to take swift action on those deemed to be “unqualified” for the position.

“We have a staff of around 7,000 people. They look to us to lead by example, to hold ourselves to a higher degree of accountability,” Galindo said.

“When they see we are sometimes incapable of that, it harms our legitimacy.”

However, chair Dawn Danko said she was comfortable with imposing sanctions on trustees but not with asking for resignations.

“When we call on trustees to resign, I’m worried that we will further divide and feed on some of the growing cynicisms that face our democratic institutions,” Danko said.

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The board said Paikin-Miller was found to have violated the code of conduct for alleged anti-Muslim remarks, a poor attitude during Human Rights and Equity Advisory Committee meetings, and making comments to the effect of “all lives matter” during the June 22 meeting.

The board said Johnstone failed to stop alleged racist comments made at that meeting and prevented the tabling of a motion.

She was also accused of making two technical code of conduct breaches, but no sanctions were imposed as Danko said they were “inadvertent” and an “error of judgment in good faith.”

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She went on to admit the breaches had an impact on Mehdi but commended steps taken by Johnstone to “improve the situation” by engaging in and setting up training as well as offering an apology.

At Thursday’s meeting, Johnstone apologized and said she was making up for her shortfalls in the ordeal by departing from two committees and not running for re-election as chair, late last year.

She also revealed her participation in bias training with the Kojo Institute to remedy “unconscious biases,” as well as maintaining a dialogue with the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate to help the board and arranged anti-racism, anti-oppression training for trustees.

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The third-party code of conduct report, released in February by Arleen Huggins of Toronto-based law firm Koskie Minsky LLP, made 12 recommendations to the HWDSB amid Mehdi’s allegations.

The report calls for mandatory governance training for all trustees and student trustees, mandatory equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) training for all trustees and student trustees on an annual basis, and an external review — with an EDI focus — of all board policies and procedures in order to “identify and remove systemic barriers and discriminatory biases and practices.”

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