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Equity missing in action in Toronto schools

School board has the policies, but lacks the people

They may have the best equity policies on paper, but when it comes to delivering the goods the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) needs work.

This school term there’s a new hope for queer students in the form of a new board-appointed executive officer for student and community equity.

“It’s one thing to have great policies and it’s another thing to implement them,” says Yaw Obeng, the TDSB’s supervisory principal on equity for inner city Toronto. “We are still struggling to implement the policy.”

The TDSB’s equity policies, one of the only in Ontario to include an explicit antihomophobia policy, have been undermined by a lack of staff dedicated to ensuring they’re put into practice.

“The policies were on the books, but bureaucracy didn’t have any commitment to them,” says Tim McCaskell, a longtime activist and former TDSB staffer who now sits on the TDSB’s Antihomophobia Equity Committee.

Newly appointed executive equity officer Lloyd McKell claims that’s all about to change. “The board of trustees wants us to put equity back on the front burner… ensuring students and community that there is active equity work being done,” says McKell.

“The role, as I see it, is to provide direction and focus for our system to establish more equitable and inclusive school environments,” says McKell, who was appointed to the position just before the start of this academic year. For the last six years, he’s been TDSB’s central coordinator for community services, school services.

“Our equity directives had taken a backseat in the past few years due to some pretty severe cutbacks, which decimated staff resources to provide support to marginalized communities. It was an ongoing process of rebuilding and reshaping the organization, which took the focus off equity.”

To get things back on track, McKell has plans to establish a new equity policies advisory committee that will include queer representation.

“We have to try to develop an environment where students are partners and we need to increase parent involvement with outreach programs between parents and teachers,” says McKell. “Getting back to providing professional development for teachers, ensuring inclusive classroom activities where students see themselves reflected in what is taught and how it is taught.”

Obeng, who is one of just 14 full-time equity staff in place at TDSB to serve approximately 280,000 students, says more resources and personnel need to be dedicated to equity.

In the meantime, the problems that the equity policies were drafted to address haven’t gone away.

“Kids are still being harassed, bullied,” says McCaskell. “We need data collected and anecdotal evidence – stories that say there’s something seriously wrong here. Stories of queer kids in the system, stories of queer parents of kids in the system.”

According to McCaskell, we’re just now seeing the full effects of past provincial cutbacks. “Under the [Conservative premier Mike] Harris government there were huge cutbacks to education. It was like, ‘Equity, yeah, we’ll get to that, but right now we’re going under.’

“When we’re talking about equity in the school board, we’re talking about really predictable consequences for society. Everybody is so freaked about violence in the streets [but] there’s a whole generation that got screwed over [by provincial funding cuts] and now they’re going crazy. All these people in their early 20s now, their parents were on welfare and lost one quarter of their income overnight. Community centres were closed and support systems disappeared. It’s the fruits of really grinding whole communities into the dirt by Harris.”