‘Oppressive’ York school board policies are dividing the community over renaming of Vaughan school, town hall hears
Feb. 19, 2021
For over three hours, York Region community members spoke at a virtual town hall about who they’d like to rename a Vaughan high school after.
But many took the opportunity to criticize a naming process that isn’t typical for school boards -- giving one trustee the sole authority to decide what option is put forward -- and accuse a board member of using the controversy to create divisions in the community.
“The York District School Board has fostered a culture of policy and procedure to further oppress the Black students, Black educators and the Black community,” said Charline Grant, the founder of Parents of Black Children, an advocacy group for Black families facing systemic barriers in education, during the town hall.
“We’re seeing it on full display here in this renaming,” she said. Grant has been instrumental in compelling the board to act on anti-Black racism.
In 2016, she launched human rights complaints against the YRDSB after incidents involving her son and herself, which included her being called the “N-word” by an elected trustee. The board eventually settled with her and apologized.
At the town hall, she emphasized that COVID-19 has shown that board policies should be modified to fit the needs of the broader community. She said allowing a trustee who has further marred the board’s relationship with the Black residents to pick a name is distressing.
That trustee is David Sherman, who will ultimately decide on a single name and present it to other board members for a vote, as per board policy. A majority needs to agree with the submitted name for it to pass.
Sherman’s actions through the renaming process have been divisive and there’s a fear his choice will not reflect the community’s voice, she said.
Trustees didn’t speak at the town hall. Sherman told the Star last month that he ensured an extensive community consultation process was in place specifically to hear residents’ choices, and that he values everyone’s voices.
The town hall Wednesday night was one of the final steps in a community consultation process that will guide the board in determining a new name for Vaughan Secondary School.
On Feb. 23, Sherman will bring a recommended name to the Property Management Committee. On March 2, the board will vote on the recommended name.
The school board announced in September that the high school would be renamed after Black community organizations campaigned for months to have the name dropped, as Benjamin Vaughan was an 18th-century slave owner.
In November, a survey was sent to parents, students and community members in York Region asking residents to submit who they felt the school should be named after. Those results were released last month and showed a plurality of submissions picked Hodan Nalayeh as their top choice, with 42.5 per cent of 992 submissions identifying her.
Nalayeh was a prominent Somali-Canadian journalist in the Vaughan region and was known for highlighting uplifting stories about the Somali diaspora, focusing on women and youth.
After the results were released, Sherman, who is leading the renaming process, said he had concerns that “certain groups” garnered submissions for Nalayeh came from outside the country and unfairly swayed the consultation. He claimed on Twitter that the community “overwhelmingly supports” Holocaust survivors, despite the survey results.
Some trustees told the Star in January and this month that one trustee’s views do not represent the whole board. During a Jan. 28 meeting, trustees Elizabeth Sinclair and Juanita Nathan said specifically the renaming process has been harmful and sometimes racist.
During the town hall, Grant also said she wanted to offer her speaking time to Toronto Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, to show the unity between the Black and Jewish communities around the renaming.
“David Sherman tried to pin us against each other on Twitter. I ask that we could share this space together, to show that united front,” she said, adding that her request had been denied.
Shernett Martin, the executive director of the Vaughan African Canadian Association, also spoke , saying Sherman has made “vile and horrific accusations” against her and her organization. She asked that he apologize for alleging they’re anti-Semitic.
“What should have been a very easy decision in selection has now become this, something we are defending ourselves by someone trying to drive a wedge between the Jewish community and the Black community,” she said.
In the last few weeks, prominent members of the region’s Jewish community including Rabbi Micah Streiffer and Bernie Farber have said they support naming the school after Nalayeh and support the Black community.
However, during the town hall, some residents spoke in favour of Sherman.
Resident Eleanor Belalov spoke in favour of naming the school after Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and claimed organizations like the Vaughan African Canadian Association were not “listening” to the community despite the survey results.
Belalov did not address policy concerns that other speakers brought up. The Star asked other school boards in the area if a single trustee is tasked with picking a final name to bring forward in the renaming process. The Toronto District School Board said a committee comes up with the shortlist and the final name to present, as a group.
Earlier this month, trustees passed a motion to review their renaming policy.
Vidya Shah, an assistant professor of education at York University who used to attend the school, said this is an opportunity for the board to rename a school where the original name caused specific harm to the Black community.
It’s important to look beyond policy in this scenario, said Shah.
“The whole point of equity and inclusion is to address historic and current injustices,” she said. “Instead processes and polices have used to hide actions that are rooted in anti-Black racism.”