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Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Leece, seen here on Oct. 28, 2019, said that his ministry has heard complaints from families, students, trustees and community members.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s Education Minister has ordered a review of the Peel District School Board amid allegations of targeted racism against students and a human-rights complaint filed by the district’s head of equity.

Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that his ministry has heard complaints from families, students, trustees and community members. He said he will appoint reviewers to examine practices and make recommendations to “ensure effective board governance that promotes equity, increases accountability and transparency, and safeguards the success and well-being of students – irrespective of heritage, faith, colour of skin, orientation, or socio-economic status.”

The review is expected to begin later this month and the ministry says it expects a report within six to 12 weeks.

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“Schools must be safe, inclusive, and welcoming places for students, staff, and the entire community. Allegations related to equity in the Peel District School Board have raised concerns, specifically related to anti-black racism and lack of adherence to governance, leadership, and human resources practices,” Mr. Lecce said in a statement.

In a statement, the chair of the Peel board, Stan Cameron, and its vice-chair, Sue Lawton, said they wrote to the ministry last month requesting “assistance and intervention." There was no vote among trustees to ask the province to intervene.

The board in Peel, west of Toronto, was seen in the education community as making strides toward equity and fighting anti-black racism. More recently, however, the board has struggled to keep pace.

Parents, students and community members have attended board meetings and demanded action on racism in schools.

Last month, a trustee apologized in the Toronto Star after referring to McCrimmon Middle School, which has a large racialized student population, as McCriminal in a private conversation. The matter is being dealt with by the board’s integrity commissioner.

Further, Poleen Grewal, the board’s associate director of instructional and equity support services, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in March against the Peel board and its director, Peter Joshua, alleging discrimination and harassment.

The complaint outlines a number of instances in which Ms. Grewal said she was not supported, and felt isolated, “victimized and demeaned.” She alleged that her attempts to raise issues of racism and act on anti-racism plans created "a poisonous work environment” for her.

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Last November, she went on medical leave, alleging that she felt unsafe and targeted. She alleged that the board did not support her while she was being criticized by some media over a memo she sent to English departments on teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. Last year, Ms. Grewal said in the memo that the the book should not be taught in high schools, “unless instruction occurs through a critical, anti-oppression lens.” (Ms. Grewal has returned to her position at the board).

None of the allegations has been proved. The Peel board, in its response, denies the allegations.

Ms. Grewal’s lawyer, Andrew Pinto, said in an e-mail on Thursday that his client welcomed the government’s review, and would want to meet with the reviewers with the goal of “increasing accountability, and promoting an environment that respects and upholds principles of equity and human rights for students and board employees.”

Kathy McDonald, a trustee at the board, said she independently sent an e-mail to the ministry last month asking officials to examine the situation at Peel.

She described a “culture of fear” at the board where she said that those who speak out are targeted and isolated.

“I‘ve been told I’m anti-chair, anti-director. And I told them I’m anti-racist,” Ms. McDonald said in an interview on Thursday.

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She added: “I welcome them [the reviewers] to come because what has been going on in the board has been happening for years.”

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