Ontario’s Education Minister says his office will review the circumstances that led to the recent death of a principal who had filed a lawsuit against the Toronto District School Board for failing to protect him after a confrontation during a diversity-training session.
Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Monday evening that he asked his staff to review what happened “and bring me options to reform professional training and strengthen accountability on school boards so this never happens again.”
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.
Mr. Bilkszto had filed a lawsuit against the TDSB earlier this year, alleging that he was implicitly referred to as a racist and a white supremacist at a professional-development session in 2021 by an outside consultant. The lawsuit alleges senior staff did not stop the harassment, which was contrary to the school board’s policy of protecting the well-being and safety of its employees.
“These are serious and disturbing allegations. No staff member should ever be subject to harassment while in their place of work,” Mr. Lecce said in the statement. “This tragic incident only underscores the need for greater accountability of school boards and the necessity to ensure professional training is free from harassment and intimidation.”
Toronto District School Board education director Colleen Russell-Rawlins, along with two associate directors, expressed their condolences to Mr. Bilkszto’s family and friends, and said in a statement that the school board was gathering information “to better understand the events that occurred.”
The Toronto School Administrators’ Association, which represents principals and vice-principals, said in a statement on Monday that it had asked the TDSB to investigate when the principal first brought the issue forward two years ago.
“To our knowledge, an investigation was never undertaken,” said the statement issued by chair Rita Gallippi, and Alisa Cashore, the vice-chair.
The organization said it would request that Mr. Lecce appoint an investigator to conduct an inquiry into the concerns that were raised by Mr. Bilkszto.
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 lawsuit.
The speaker, Kike Ojo-Thompson, who is the founder and chief executive of the KOJO Institute, said that Canada had “never reckoned with its anti-Black history” while the U.S. had, the statement of claim alleges.
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.
In the sessions, Mr. Bilkszto said he was berated in front of his peers and felt humiliated. 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 had not been formally served to the school board, so it has not filed a defence.
In a statement on Sunday, the KOJO Institute disputed the lawsuit’s description of the training sessions as “inaccurate and incomplete” and 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.”
Mr. Bilkszto also filed a mental stress injury claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in May, 2021, because of what he considered to be 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 in a ruling that described the speaker’s behaviour during the training sessions as “abusive, egregious and vexatious.”
Ms. Bildy said in a statement, released with Mr. Bilkszto’s family’s permission, that the incidents in 2021 caused her client “severe mental distress” and that he “succumbed to this distress.”
On Friday, the Ontario Principals’ Council, a professional organization that supports school administrators in the province’s 31 English public boards, said school boards should protect its staff from bullying and harassment and that “all efforts must be made to prevent this from ever happening again.”