If there was a prize for the most dysfunctional school board in the country, the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) would be a serious contender. Not content with the chaos and divisiveness that took place last year, WRDSB trustees appear determined to double down on their toxic approach.
On Jan. 16, a concerned parent appeared as a delegate at a WRDSB board meeting. During his presentation, David Todor expressed opposition to the board’s focus on gender and sexuality and raised concerns about surveys that his seven-year-old and nine-year-old girls were asked to fill out. He also read out loud from a book with sexually explicit language that he claimed was accessible to his daughters at school.
Whether or not one agrees with what Todor said or with how he said it, there is no question that as a parent in the region, he had every right to be heard. Considering how WRDSB had previously silenced one of its own teachers for raising similar concerns, the fact that Todor was allowed to finish his presentation at all was a step in the right direction.
Immediately after Todor’s presentation, trustees passed a motion asking that his concerns be forwarded to staff so they could follow up with him directly. Most people watching that board meeting would likely have assumed that Todor would soon receive a personal phone call or letter from a staff member who would then address his concerns.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. Instead, the WRDSB released a lengthy “open letter” in which it attacked Todor for what he said during his presentation. While Todor wasn’t directly named in the letter, it was obviously about him. Among other things, the letter denounced parents who used “inflammatory language and misinformation” and stated that questions about school library books are often “veiled attempts to target 2SLGBTQIA+ families.”
If the letter was supposed to resolve the issue, all it did was raise the temperature. Trustees Cindy Watson, Mike Ramsay, and Bill Cody were so upset with the letter that they issued a statement of their own denouncing the way in which parents had been demonized for raising “legitimate concerns” about WRDSB schools. Unsurprisingly, board chair Joanne Weston then defended the letter and claimed that it cleared up a lot of “misconceptions.”
Of course, the key problem with the letter is that it was a textbook example of gaslighting. The letter made it sound like there was something wrong with any parent who asked questions about the books in school libraries or who didn’t want their young children answering highly personal questions about gender and sexual orientation. This is the perfect way of making parents feel unwelcome in their own community.
It’s interesting how quickly some trustees seem to abandon their support for diversity when exposed to viewpoints that they find offensive. Whether trustees like it or not, there are still tens of millions of people in North America who hold traditional views about gender and sexuality. This isn’t going to change anytime soon.
If parents with traditional views feel disrespected in their neighbourhood schools, they will soon start looking for other educational options. Making parents feel unwelcome is one of the fastest ways to undermine support for the public education system.
The WRDSB prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students. However, inclusion is about more than celebrating different races, genders, and sexual orientations. True inclusion recognizes that children come from families who hold vastly different religious beliefs and ensures that they are all treated with respect.
The last thing students need is to be told their parents’ religious beliefs and values are wrong. And yet, this is the message that gets sent home loud and clear when school boards turn a parent’s presentation into an opportunity to issue an open letter denouncing that parent for raising those concerns at all.
WRDSB’s letter might temporarily succeed in silencing some parents, but it will certainly not build trust between parents and the school board.
We must never forget that schools were never meant to take the place of parents. Regardless of how trustees feel about what parents have to say, gaslighting them is never a good idea. It really shouldn’t be that hard to treat parents with respect.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.