Parents not told about hate incidents
Board defends protocol after elementary school vandalized with swastikas
Parents at a Toronto elementary school vandalized with swastikas were stunned to hear of the incident from their children and not administrators, saying they are “disappointed” by a board procedure that prohibits principals from sharing such information.
The Toronto District School Board says it takes allegations of hate and racism “very seriously” but has moved away from telling parents about these incidents because it’s concerned that students who may have been involved will be vilified and the reports will lead to copycat acts.
“Staff immediately support any impacted students, provide a learning opportunity where appropriate and begin an investigation,” said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird in an email, adding that incidents are examined on a caseby-case basis and can result in suspensions.
“As an educational institution, we have a duty to create a school community that is not only safe for students, but one in which they can learn from their mistakes.”
His comments follow an incident last week that shocked students and parents at McMurrich Junior Public School, near St. Clair Avenue West and Bathurst Street.
In an interview with the Star, school council co-chairs Rachel Cooper and Livy Jacobs said that their children told them the principal made an announcement about washroom graffiti, urging those with information to come forward.
It was through the rumour mill that students, and parents, learned two swastikas had been drawn in the washroom.
Cooper and Jacobs, both Jewish, met with the principal and told her that parents should have been informed. They were surprised to learn the board doesn’t notify the school community about incidents of hate, including antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.
“The principal’s hands are tied, and they’re not allowed to send a communication even if they feel that they should,” said Cooper, noting it doesn’t matter if the trustee, superintendent and parent community support such a move. She now wonders if other troubling incidents have not been shared, adding that it’s left her feeling “very uncomfortable and leads to a lack of trust in the board.”
According to emails between the co-chairs and board officials, which were viewed by the Star, calls for greater transparency were echoed by the school’s trustee, Shelley Laskin of Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence and Toronto—St. Paul’s).
“I feel I have the right to know of incidents of hate within the schools I represent and, further, that communities must be made aware in order to quell rumours and support their children,” wrote Laskin in an email to the board’s director. “Please revisit the direction provided to principals and allow them to communicate.”
In late October, the principal of Northern Secondary School broke board protocol when he notified families about two swastikas and a homophobic slur found in washrooms.
He said his message came after parents posted “uninformed stories” on social media and he wanted to provide the school community with the facts, according to the letter viewed by the Star.
Cooper and Jacobs said the principal at McMurrich has been supportive and implemented programming that supports inclusion, kindness and anti-racism. But parents, especially of young children who don’t understand symbols of hatred, must be given accurate information so they can provide their kids with guidance.
Jacobs said she is “disappointed and disheartened” the principal was told not to tell parents about the incident, adding that administrators should have discretion to do so.
“I know TDSB has a zero-tolerance policy on racism, and takes these incidents seriously, which is why parents want to know what happened and what the school is doing in response,” said Jacobs.
The TDSB says over the past yearand-a-half, it has distributed fewer letters to school communities about these incidents for various reasons.
Bird said in an email they “often led to the identification, surveillance, and stigmatization of the specific students who may have been involved — making it difficult for them to reintegrate with their peers.
“These actions result in further harm to students and the overall school climate,” he said. “The TDSB has a responsibility to do all that we can to protect the privacy of the students involved, while ensuring parents/guardians and caregivers of the students involved are informed, appropriate consequences are enacted and support is provided to the students or staff impacted by the incident.
“Anecdotally, we also found that when communicating these incidents, it had the unintentional effect of prompting additional ‘copycat’ incidents.”
Cooper says the TDSB’s response suggests there’s greater concern for the perpetrator than the victims, and that withholding such information over worries about copycats “reeks of paternalism,” because the board is making decisions that a principal is better positioned to make.
Recent incidents in schools come amid increased reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, when more than 1,200 were killed and about 240 taken hostage. In the ensuing war, more than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli attacks.
Last week, Toronto’s police chief said there has been a “staggering” spike in hate crimes. Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 20, police investigated 38 antisemitic hate crimes and 17 related to Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab hate. By comparison, in the same period last year, there were 13 and one, respectively.
Also, last week, more than 2,000 parents signed a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce alleging incidents of antisemitism in Toronto schools, including Nazi salutes. At the time, Lecce told the Star there is “zero tolerance for hate” and the government has “put school boards on notice that they must crack down on antisemitism and hate in all of its forms.”
In response, the TDSB said it’s developing a “distinct strategy” to combat antisemitism, which had been in the works before the war. It’s also addressing other kinds of hate, such as anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, anti-Indigenous racism, ableism and homophobia.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited