School board boss takes blame

Carlos Osorio Toronto Star, Jan 16, 2008

The Toronto school board's director of education is taking the blame for any failure to inform staff about giving input to lawyer Julian Falconer's panel on school safety.

Gerry Connelly says she takes personal responsibility for any breakdown in communication that arose between staff and the panel, which was struck last June after the shooting death of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate.

Falconer has noted that only four of the board's 24 superintendents met with him during his exhaustive probe – but many superintendents have countered they were not invited directly by Falconer's panel to take part.

"I think that (superintendents) are speaking from the heart when they talk about their commitment to working with the panel, and I think Julian is speaking from the heart when he says he doesn't feel" they wanted to speak, she told the Star in an interview.

"So it's a miscommunication and it's most unfortunate … we all want to move on to what the real, central pieces of the report are."

In a written statement released yesterday afternoon, Connelly said she takes "accountability for any breakdown in communication which may have occurred during the seven-month panel process," and praised Falconer's "thorough and inclusive" research.

In his 1,000-page report released last week, Falconer says he uncovered a culture of fear, or silence, throughout the school board from top to bottom when it comes to reporting concerns about violence.

Indeed, three administrators have been charged by police for failing to report an alleged sexual assault at C.W. Jefferys, in which several males forced a girl to perform oral sex.

Charges of gang sexual assault have been laid against six male teens.

Falconer cited the fact many superintendents chose not to speak to the panel as an example of that culture of silence and he noted it was difficult at first to get principals or teachers to speak to the panel as well.

Superintendents supervise about 25 schools, from kindergarten to Grade 12, and are typically former teachers and principals.

Connelly said while some students are afraid to "snitch" for fear of reprisal – something the board will begin to address when it launches a Student Safety Line, staffed by professionals, on Monday – she said at the board level, she personally "has a very open communication with my senior team, and I know superintendents do with principals.

"They certainly tell me when something needs to be changed."

However, she added, "clearly, the report says there are some issues and we need to address them."

Trustee Sheila Ward, who was chair of the board during the safety probe, said if superintendents didn't meet with the panel, she believes the blame lies with Falconer.

"He didn't come to me as chair saying he needed to see the superintendents and they weren't coming forward. That didn't happen," she said.

"If he had come to me or the director," they would have urged the superintendents to meet with the panel, she added.

Ward noted Falconer did interview nearly 20 per cent of the superintendents.

"He saw less than one per cent of our entire student body and had no hesitation in making … statements that apply across the board," she said.

"So I don't know why that 20 per cent is being dismissed as not talking to him."

Reached yesterday, Falconer said he stands by his report, but referred questions about Ward's assertions to Connelly.

Meanwhile, the board's own committee on school safety will meet today to discuss with staff what's already underway and a timeline for other recommendations in the report, said committee chair trustee Cathy Dandy.

"There are some things that can be acted upon right away – like gender-neutral harassment policies" that won't cost anything to implement and are essential.

The board is also working with the police on the issue of weapons in schools.