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Former student says Hamilton school board treated her racism accusations as a ‘one-off’

Former Hamilton school board student trustee Ahona Medhi called for the removal of four board members during a Facebook Live session on Feb. 4, 2021. Hamilton Students for Justice / Facebook

A former student trustee who made allegations of “racial gaslighting” and “silencing” within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says she’s “disappointed” that her circumstance is apparently being branded as a “one-off” episode.

Former Westmount Secondary student Ahona Mehdi, whose accusations prompted a third-party investigation within the HWDSB, told Global News that sanctions imposed on just two of four members in connection with her complaints was “absolutely not enough.”

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Mehdi says it’s “absolutely ridiculous” the board suggested there was little evidence of her “oppression” and “racism” claims during her tenure and that some of her allegations were not substantiated.

“That’s why they’re trying to save face and trying to paint it as something that’s … a one-off incident,” said Mehdi.

“Something that only I have experienced or something that I misinterpreted or something I experienced in a different way than they had experienced it.”

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Medhi, with the support of a number of other groups, had been calling for the board members’ resignations amid a 67-page report that found some merit to claims of censorship and alleged racist comments made during the June 22, 2020 board meeting.

The report examined five areas related to Mehdi’s allegations — a lack of governance and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) training, silencing, racial gaslighting, microaggressions, and issues with specific trustees.

Former Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Alex Johnstone and Carole Paikin-Miller were issued penalties during a special board meeting on March 4 as a result of findings in the report.

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

She has been barred from holding any chair position on a committee until December 2021 and is required to engage in equity, governance, and anti-racism training as a result of conduct breaches.

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 trustee 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.

Read more: Hamilton public school board apologizes to former student trustee following racism review

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Trustees Becky Buck and Kathy Archer, who Mehdi accused of making questionable remarks during public board meetings, were found not to have violated code of conduct rules and are not facing sanctions.

“They can say that, you know, it wasn’t a breach of the code of conduct, but it definitely should be considered a breach of the board’s ethical standards,” said Mehdi.

“I think that it’s just it’s really disappointing and it’s a flaw within the system, within itself.”

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In response to Mehdi’s characterization that her experience was being treated as a “one-off” incident, an HWDSB spokesperson told Global News on Monday that the board acknowledges they failed to create a supportive and accepting environment for Mehdi and have issued a formal apology to the former student.

The board also re-issued a statement from chair Dawn Danko in response to her accusation.

“The investigative report expert recommendations, which we have already begun implementing, offer the opportunity to change the trajectory of this Board, to build a culture of inclusion, and to ensure the active dismantling of systemic racism and bias so that no student or staff is ever made to feel the way Ahona Mehdi did,” Danko said.

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