An Ontario principals’ group says it is concerned about the safety of staff from bullying and harassment following the recent death of an administrator who had filed a lawsuit against the Toronto District School Board for failing to protect him after a confrontation during a diversity training session.
Richard Bilkszto retired as a principal from the school board in 2019 after more than two decades, but continued to work on a contract basis. His lawyer, Lisa Bildy, said he died by suicide earlier this month.
The Ontario Principals’ Council said in a statement on Friday that it was “deeply saddened and disturbed” to learn of Mr. Bilkszto’s death. The council supports school administrators in the province’s 31 English public boards, which are responsible for 1.3 million students.
“Employers have an obligation to provide a safe working environment and to protect their staff from bullying and harassment, including from external service providers,” the association stated, adding that the Toronto District School Board failed to protect Mr. Bilkszto.
“We are deeply concerned about the potential for this type of harm to occur to other educators. All efforts must be made to prevent this from ever happening again.”
A statement of claim provided by Mr. Bilkszto’s lawyer said the principal and other administrators were invited by the school board in 2021 for anti-Black racism training by the KOJO Institute, a consulting firm that provides anti-racism sessions. During a session, Mr. Bilkszto expressed an opinion that challenged the speaker’s statement that Canada was more racist than the United States.
According to the statement of claim, the speaker Kike Ojo-Thompson, who is the founder and CEO of the KOJO Institute, said that Canada had “never reckoned with its anti-Black history,” while the U.S. had.
Mr. Bilkszto, who had previously taught in Buffalo, N.Y., disagreed. “Bilkszto expressed his opinion that Canada is a more just society than the United States, pointing to examples of the Canadian education system and universal health care,” according to the statement of claim. He said it would have been an “incredible disservice to our learners” to suggest differently.
In a session the following week, Ms. Ojo-Thompson emphasized the previous interaction with Mr. Bilkszto “as being a ‘real-life’ example of ‘resistance’ in support of white supremacy,” the statement of claim said.
Mr. Bilkszto alleged in the lawsuit that the speaker’s statements implicitly referred to him as a racist and a white supremacist.
In the sessions, Mr. Bilkszto said he was berated in front of his peers and felt humiliated. He alleged that the school board’s supervisors and members of the senior management team, who were in attendance, did not intervene to stop the harassment, which was contrary to the board’s policy on protecting the well-being and safety of its employees.
Mr. Bilkszto also alleged that the sessions constituted workplace harassment and he suffered emotional distress that was aggravated by the failure of the school board’s senior staff to intervene.
“Bilkszto left the training session feeling humiliated, attacked, unsupported, harassed and alone. He suffered mental distress as a result,” according to the statement of claim.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Ms. Bildy said the claim was issued but had not been formally served to the school board, so it has not filed a defence.
Mr. Bilkszto also filed a mental stress injury claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in May, 2021, because of what he considered workplace harassment that resulted in his inability to work. The WSIB decision, which was provided to The Globe and Mail by his lawyer, ruled in his favour. He was awarded almost two months of lost earnings.
“I am satisfied that the conduct of the speaker on April 26, 2021 and May 3, 2021 was abusive, egregious and vexatious, and rises to the level of workplace harassment and bullying,” according to the ruling.
The school board did not comment on Mr. Bilkszto’s allegations.
In an e-mail, Toronto District School Board spokesman Ryan Bird expressed the board’s sympathies to Mr. Bilkszto’s family and friends.
“Our hearts go out to Richard’s family and loved ones. He was a strong advocate for students – particularly those in adult and alternative education ‐ and worked tirelessly to create an environment that fostered student success for students of all ages,” Mr. Bird stated.
In a statement on Sunday, the KOJO Institute also offered its condolences. The firm said, “all interactions with individual employees, including Mr. Bilkszto, throughout the training sessions were brief.”
It added: “Following the completion of the training series KOJO Institute had no involvement in any complaint or internal investigations the TDSB or the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) may have undertaken regarding this matter.”
It also said that it disputed the allegations in the lawsuit, “including the descriptions of interactions with KOJO Institute staff which paint an inaccurate and incomplete picture of training sessions that took place over two years ago.”
Ms. Bildy said the incidents in 2021 caused her client “severe mental distress.”
“Unfortunately, the stress and effects of these incidents continued to plague Richard. Last week he succumbed to this distress,” Ms. Bildy said in a statement released on Thursday, with Mr. Bilkszto’s family’s permission.