A Halton District School Board (HDSB) meeting last night (Feb. 15) erupted into anger and frustration after an interim report on a proposed new professional attire policy for teachers lacked any substantive outline, timeline or details.
Concerned parents and other members of the public filled the public gallery at the HDSB administrative building on Guelph Line to capacity and many waited for 2.5 hours to hear the report from the HDSB Director Curtis Ennis.
The professional attire policy was hoped to address a controversy which has been boiling for six months in relation to a transgender teacher associated with Oakville Trafalgar High School who has presented at school in enormous prosthetic breasts and revealing clothing, drawing international media attention, protests outside the school and numerous bomb threats.
Only 60 people were allowed into the gallery due to fire code restrictions and parents' group Students First Ontario said roughly 25 others had to be turned away, after waiting outside for more than 30 minutes.
Some two hours into the public portion of the meeting, Ennis delivered an update on the proposed policy, saying only it was on course to be ready for March 1.
"As we embark on this policy process, we are mindful that we are in a period of statutory freeze according the the Ontario Labour Relations Act," he said. "We will be relying, however, as we proceed, on HDSB policies and procedures, the Ontario College of Teachers, any court rulings that may be appropriate and any statutory and ministry standards as we deem them appropriate.
"The board's policy and procedure framework governs the development of policy and states policy is a broad statement of intent and reflects the goals of the Halton District School Board. Policies shall provide direction and guidance in matters of board governance and system administration and shall specify what and why. What is the strategic direction described by the policy and why is the Halton District School Board committed to the directives outlined in the said policy.
"The board's policy provides the framework in which procedures are developed," he continued. "The professionalism policy then will be presented on March 1 in response to the motion that was provided Jan. 13, 2023. The policy will then be limited to what and why statements in keeping with the board's policy procedure framework. We will be framing our position on existing statements that exist similar to what I outlined earlier."
Ennis added there would be an opportunity for stakeholders and school councils to comment.
Trustees attempted to clarify, on behalf of questions submitted by the public, how the board would be getting input from students, but the gallery soon erupted with many attendees shouting out questions and comments.
Attendees suggested Ennis had offered only "word salad" and called him incompetent. "Shame on you," said one parent, while another said she was afraid to send her son to school due to ongoing bomb threats.
HDSB chair Margo Shuttleworth told the gallery only those in the session could comment and then a short period of uncertainty as to whether the meeting would continue ensued as some trustees left the chamber.
"Why aren't they saying anything?" a parent asked. Minutes later, a Halton police officer arrived and escorted one of the most vocal members of the gallery outside and then the meeting resumed, although many in the public gallery had left voluntarily.
Earlier in the meeting, the board heard from two delegates on the professional dress policy, with a lawyer working with Students First, Rishi Bandhu, saying the group felt they needed to take any opportunity available to try and be heard about the matter.
Delegates were only allowed to speak at the meeting if they pre-submitted their comments to the board for approval.
Bandhu cited many of the governing regulations dealing with schools, their councils and the boards. "You cannot prevent parents from issuing feedback on recommendations with respect to their own children," he said, to wide applause.
"The professionalism policy was unnecessary," Bandhu said. "All you needed to do was affirm the values and beliefs contained in the student dress code. That is all that was required."
Bandhu said parents have felt ignored. "We have not been heard," he said. "We have not been heard by the principal. We have not been heard by the superintendent. We are availing ourselves or every opportunity we can, to make our point. I have issued a number of letters, they don't get responded to or they don't get responded to in a way that is meaningful... We want to be heard, that is all we are asking for."
Also speaking before the board was trans woman Julia Malott, who told BurlingtonToday she was asked to delegate by Students First.
Malott said that she was delivering a "censored" version of her speech. "I was told that what I originally wrote was unacceptable," she said. She delivered only the approved version.
"I have many times reviewed policies and procedures which do not adequately facilitate the needs of transgender individuals and I am hopeful that the enacted policy will be inclusive and fair to all," she said to the board.
HDSB is unusual in having a dress code for students but not for staff and administration, she added. "Adults in our schools are the role models for our children. I would expect staff would present professionalism and decorum that is at least as stringent as that we enforce upon our students."
Malott said professionalism precautions protect both staff and students. "Transgender women such as myself are especially disadvantaged by poorly written sex-based policies," she said. "Historically, professionalism in dress code policies has been used to restrict or impose a particular ideal of gender expression on men and women accordingly. This does not have to be the case, and it is entirely possible to administer a dress code that is inclusive of transgender individuals."
Malott later told BurlingtonToday the Students First group had reached out in an effort to understand the trans perspective after seeing she had commented on trans issues with the Waterloo school board. She also said she believes the group have been unfairly portrayed as "anti-trans."
"The sad reality of our current identity politics is that people are acting as though you are either for or against transgender people," Malott said. "They are ignoring that there's a huge middle ground. There are certainly some people who may not agree with my transition, but that doesn't mean that they don't still love me as a person. Tonight amongst Students First, I felt nothing but love."