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Chris Bolton, chair of the Toronto District School Board, speaks to the media on Toronto on Jan. 11, 2013.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

A culture of bullying is so prevalent within Canada's largest school board that the chair has received half a dozen complaints in the past six months about threatening behaviour by trustees. The latest incident has prompted him to make the unusual request of having a police officer present at this week's meeting to keep staff and trustees safe.

Chris Bolton, chair of the Toronto District School Board, said the most-recent complaint on Friday from the director of education, who stated in a letter that staff felt intimidated by some trustees, pushed him to request a police presence at this Wednesday's board meeting. He said that a police officer will be requested for other board meetings, as well as committee meetings, if the situation gets out of hand. School boards usually have security guards present during protests at board meetings.

"I want to make it very clear how seriously I take the concerns of people expressing concerns about their safety," Mr. Bolton said Sunday. "It may seem extreme, but it's emphatic."

The TDSB has been a deeply divided school board. But lately, relationships between some trustees and staff have deteriorated. A recent provincial audit report described a "culture of fear" at the school board, where staff have been pressured by trustees to not follow policies, and fear losing their jobs if they disobey trustees' orders.

Mr. Bolton said the six or so formal complaints involving trustee behaviour have not been addressed because he is waiting for an updated code of conduct from a working group, which has been meeting for more than a year. As it stands now, there are sanctions for trustees who misbehave, including exclusion from private meetings, removal from committees and censuring them.

But trustees, just like city councillors, are elected officials, and can't be removed from the school board unless they are found criminally responsible.

Schoolyard bullies face tough consequences, and Mr. Bolton described the threats and intimidation at the TDSB's main office as "distressing."

"I think that up until now we've been trying to work on it internally to try and tone it down," Mr. Bolton said.

But trustee Shelley Laskin said the board has reached this point because of a lack of leadership. She said that Mr. Bolton never handled situations as they arose. In her 10 years as a TDSB trustee, she said she has never seen this level of personal attacks, which have gone on without any sanctions.

Trustee Pamela Gough said in an e-mail to other trustees that conduct not condoned in a corporate setting is exhibited by some trustees "on a fairly regular basis, including shouting, swearing, intimidating gestures, rude, insulting remarks, slammed doors, and misuse of social media."

The latest incident caught the TDSB off-guard.

Donna Quan, the director of education, and associate directors sent a letter to Mr. Bolton Friday, saying staff felt intimidated and threatened by a trustee at a committee meeting earlier that week. The incident involved trustee Howard Goodman. Mr. Goodman confronted Ms. Quan about the non-payment of TDSB membership dues to the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.

"I was certainly showing my frustration at the director for not following board's instruction," Mr. Goodman said. He acknowledged he raised his voice in a heated discussion with Ms. Quan.

In her letter, Ms. Quan said the situation is not unique. "It appears that our organization has come to condone a culture where it is acceptable for staff members to be subjected to abusive, threatening and insulting comments by elected officials," she wrote. "This is not acceptable under any circumstances." She also condemned the behaviour that some trustees show each other.

Ms. Quan could not be reached Sunday.

In response to the letter, Mr. Bolton has not only requested a police presence, but also said that the door between the trustees' office and senior staff offices will be locked and that meetings will require appointments.

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