Toronto District School Board Initial Access to Information Return on ‘Hijab Hoax’ Leaves More Questions than Answers

At long last, after waiting seven months, which really feels like a lifetime with everything that’s happened in the news subsequently, the Access to Information (ATI) request with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) for all communications pertaining to the “hijab hoax” –occurring way back on January 12 — has finally been completed.

Although the communications provided paint an incomplete picture (I’ve submitted an appeal with the Information and Privacy Commissioner to try and get more of the communications made public), the 118-page return (including several duplicate pages, redacted sections and some mostly blank pages) does give the reader an idea of the hectic situation the “hijab hoax” caused TDSB staff when the story attracted intense media attention, even grabbing international attention. It’s also far less than the initial estimate of 904 pages, which, according to the TDSB, turned out to be mostly duplicates of the same email chains.

What’s noticeably absent from the return is almost any mention of the TDSB sending a spokesperson to the school as the nascent police investigation was ongoing to comment on what turned out to be a false report, as well as any communications on the decision to host a press conference in the school’s library. Again, I will be getting the Information and Privacy Commissioner to take a second look at the documents to see if any communications was improperly withheld. It could also be the case that these communications were made verbally, but it’s interesting to note that in the following days’ email communications there is almost no mention of these parts of the story, despite a turn in events leading to questions of why the TDSB rushed to have press conference held inside the school.

As Raving Canuck previously reported, a conspiracy theory that a Muslim activist and volunteer of then-Premier Kathleen Wynne’s riding association was involved in orchestrating the hoax was false. So was the belief HuffPo Canada blurred out the older woman’s face (the child’s grandmother) to cover up for the activist that wasn’t at the press conference.

The disclosed emails in the ATI return reveal that TDSB staff were concerned for the safety of the children of the school and protecting them from unwanted media attention. TDSB staff were also concerned for the child and family after it turned out the story wasn’t true. Other communications show TDSB employees brainstorming on the statements to give the press, parents, teachers and students. Most of the emails are mundane, but I’ve provided a chronological summary below and the full ATI return is appended at the bottom of the article.

January 12

A TDSB communications officer sent an email at 9:43 informing the school that Toronto police had tweeted about the alleged assault and named the school.

The TDSB administrative liaison to Superintendent Lynn Strangway contacted Pauline Johnson Junior Public School Principal Kent to provide her the forms for the required incident report. “The Premier is tweeting about it!” said the administrator liaison in her email.

Just before noon, security officers were requested at Pauline Johnson and a unit was promptly sent to the school.

A recorded call-out and letters were sent to parents informing them of the details of the made-up assault and the school’s steps in dealing with the situation.

Principal Kent sent an email to Superintendent Strangway saying she asked someone to monitor the situation outside after school to make sure children were not bothered by the media when leaving for the day.

That evening, Principal Kent emailed Superintendent Strangway to thank her for helping deal with the events of the day.

“It was your idea to have an assembly, and my brain wasn’t going there. You ordered the pizza and called all the key people to come and help us. You went out to be present on the sidwalk in the rain where the media trucks were. You returned phone calls and watched the media feed. You directed so much of what was happening without seeming to. You helped everyone — students, parents, staff, Manna, and really knew how to put people at ease. It’s a gift, and we are lucky to have you.”

In an internal email sent to school staff, Kent thanked them for their handling of the ordeal on Friday:

“There has also been an outpouring of goodwill. We’ve had offers of hijabs today from the general public, and most recently from some education students in Saskatchewan. We might want to think about how we could leverage that goodwill for some positive support messaging for our Muslim community. Have the thousand paper cranes in my head and also the recent art installation of moccasins to honour the missing and murdered aboriginal women. It’s about the symbolism. I’m not sure, but there might be an idea here and there a some very creative minds amongst our staff members, so let’s give it a think. Maybe someone in communications can help us sculpt an idea. Clearly, we’d also need to check with the family and some Imams in the community to be sure we made culturally sensitive and respectful choices.”

Another chain of communication involved TDSB media relations advising Kent on how she should deal with a requested interview with CBC’s As It Happens.

letter from the school
The letter sent out to parents on June 12.

Saturday, January 13

No important communications from this day were provided in the ATI return.

Sunday, January 14

Camera footage from Stephen Leacock public school was looked at by Toronto Police Services community safety team representatives.

In the evening Toronto Detective Jason Bartlett sent Superintendent Strangway and other TDSB representatives an email to inform her that the case was solved, but no details of their investigation were given. Strangway shared the news with Principal Kent and others.

When Superintendent Strangway asked the detective if the suspect was apprehended, he suggested they meet in person.

Superintendent Strangway requested security for Monday because “media was approaching students at the schools on Friday and parents are shaken up.”

Monday, January 15

At 5:16 a.m. Superintendent Strangway sent an email to Principal Kent, “I asked the detective [for details] and he told me he couldn’t give them to me over email but could in person so I’m trying to set up a meeting with him. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Media are not allowed on school property, but the sidewalks and streets are free,” Wrote Kent at 7:40 a.m. on Monday, January 15 in strategizing on how to deal with the media presence.

Principal Kent sent an email to superintendent Stagway suggesting they have a debrief after “the dust finally settles” to “talk frankly about the TPS tweet to the media and also about our [TDSB] media rep’s role.” Kent also wrote she would “try to carefully and diplomatically get the family’s perspective on the [media rep’s role] when we meet.” She also mentioned the police-school board protocol and that “perhaps someone at the TDSB can have those conversations with the appropriate people.”

In the early afternoon on Monday, Superintendent Strangway requested “additional police presence” around the school because it was receiving “really nasty phone calls.”

A school letter from the principal was sent out, informing parents the police investigation determined “the incident did not occur as reported” but for “students and parents to continue their vigilance about their surroundings when walking to and from school every day…”

Toronto School Administrators’ Association representatives emailed Kent at 2 p.m. to inform her that she could make “an announcement to staff and students before the end of the day, reminding them that they are not under any obligation to speak to the media.”

Extra security was provided to protect children from speaking to the media and in case of angry citizens showing up at the school over the latest news that the assault was a false report.

After receiving calls that were “very nasty and growing in number,” Superintendent Strangway requested Toronto police presence at the school.

The principal of Pauline Junior Public School, not Pauline Johnson, emailed TDSB representatives to let them know her school received an angry call from a woman demanding the girl give an apology.

Principal Kent’s email with subject title “the plan” sent out at 5:03 p.m. Monday, January 15 was completely redacted.

TDSB senior manager of professional support services Marcia Powers-Dunlop sent an email in the evening discussing the prospective TDSB statement to address the news that the hijab assault was a false report. “I think that rather than talking about ‘lying’ we should just be compassionate and say we don’t know why it happened the way it did but we are all safe. I do realize ‘inquiring minds’ will want to know all the details.”

TDSB administrators discussed talking points for teachers to use with their students in addressing the development that it was a false report, including:

  • Why did the student do what she did. It’s a good question and we don’t know right now.
  • Your safety is that important to us. What happens in each situation, we don’t know. And we will find out, because we want to help.
  • But what we do know is that you are safe and that is really good
  • When she comes back to school, we want to welcome her back. We want to make things better for everyone and learn. The good thing is you don’t have to worry about your safety or her safety.
  • This situation affected everyone and received a lot of attention because everyone was worried. And now you come back and learn that your community is safe and that you are safe. And you are glad for that.
  • Want you to think about is if you ever did something you maybe shouldn’t have. Then it got big and out of control in ways you never imagined. How do you make this better and move on.
  • This situation affected everyone and received a lot of attention because everyone was worried. And now you come back and learn that your community is safe and that you are safe. And you are glad for that.
  • Look at what kind of a place we live in that each one of you are special. The Prime Minister, Premier, Mayor, Director of Education, everyone wanted you to know that we wanted you to be safe. We live in a great country that values you and you and you. Canada is a place where everyone belongs.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird suggested they not divulge too much information in their statement addressing the false report. “I’ve looked over this and I don’t understand why all of this is needed. other than explaining it didn’t happen, students are safe and that we always want you to speak to an adult if you’re concerned about something that has happened, etc. I’m not sure if we should be commenting any further.”

Superintendent Strangway wrote to Principal Kent to thank her “for coming up with this plan for the support for the family.” She then told Kent, “I can ask Jeewan if he knows of any community supports the family might want to access.”

January 16

TDSB community support worker Colleen Huggins informed the principal and superintendent that the crisis team at the city felt “the best way to move forward is to keep things internal and do not have a community meeting.” Huggins also mentioned that the city crisis team recommended “restorative work” using someone from the TDSB or “get an outside agency that does restorative work to work through the conflict and negative feelings about the situation.”

Pauline Johnson Teacher Melissa Timm sent Kent an email with the subject line “Re: sad news”, in which the entire email was redacted.

TDSB’s Shari Schwartz-Maltz wrote Principal Kent, “Thinking about you Janice. Every day. The hate calls and emails I’m getting are grotesque. We’ll get through this. We did all the right things. Call me anytime.”

TDSB staff came up with a list of items to discuss in a staff meeting addressing the issue, including concerns of a “rise in white supremacy” and “Islamophobia”. Below are all of the notes compiled for the staff meeting:

staff meeting 1

staff meeting 2staff meeting 3staff meeting 4staff meeting 5staff meeting 7staff meeting 8

 

Conclusion

The ATI return reveals a lot about how TDSB employees handled the ordeal caused by the false police report, but some key information is missing.

The communications do not show any discussion on how the TDSB allowed a press conference to take place in Pauline Johnson’s library mere hours after the false report was made. There is also no discussion on the decision to send a TDSB spokesperson to speak to the media at the press conference.

The details of the investigation are not included, although it appears that’s because the Toronto Police detective made sure not to share them via email. However, I did speak to Toronto Police Services Commander Mark Pugash (a few weeks after the controversial events took place, in a report) who said:

“We compiled a lot of evidence, including interviews and security camera footage, and came to the only conclusion that we could come to, that it didn’t happen. People kept asking me, ‘Well how did it happen? How did it come to that point?’ I said that I don’t think it is appropriate for me to comment on that. The obligation on us was to investigate, and we had serious allegations, and we took them seriously. We investigated. Within three days we came back and said, ‘Our view is, from the evidence, [this didn’t happen].’”

So no clear answers on if only the children were involved in the hoax.

As for the TDSB holding a press conference on school property, this was the statement provided to me from spokesperson Ryan Bird:

“On Friday morning, Toronto Police tweeted about an initial report of an assault at the school involving a man cutting off a student’s hijab. As a result, a TDSB spokesperson was dispatched to the school, where multiple media outlets were already present and wanting to speak to the student and/or her family. At no time, did the TDSB call a press conference, however spokespeople from the TDSB and Toronto Police made themselves available to answer any questions. This was done inside the school due to the bad weather outside. After expressing concern that they were going to be approached by media outside while trying to leave, as well as a concern that no members of the community be subject to the alleged perpetrator, the family was asked if they would like to join the TDSB spokesperson as she spoke to media. The family members said they would speak to media and it was our understanding that this happened after, not before, they provided statements to police. Once again, we are very thankful that this assault did not in fact happen. Our motivation for commenting on the issue at the time was only out of compassion, care, concern and support — as did many elected leaders nationally, provincially and locally via interviews or social media.”

Here’s the ATI return on Scribd.

Crowdfunding and Final Steps

This is the seventh piece I’ve written on the false report from January, and I would like to drop the issue and not dredge something up from eight months ago, but because I crowdfunded researching this story I feel an obligation to donors to see this story through to its completion.

The process of doing this ATIP request with a municipal institution was informative in how time-consuming and frustrating the Access to Information process is at the municipal and provincial level. The federal level only requires a standard flat fee of $5 for requests. When Doug Ford was running for the PC leadership I asked him if he would fix the system by lowering the fees and he agreed that they’re too expensive. Now that he’s Premier of Ontario I will see if he will follow through on his words. I am also looking into doing a piece for CANADALAND on the atrocious FOI systems across Canada, which are far less transparent than in America.

In June, the TDSB informed me they would need a two-month extension to process my request. TDSB Manager of Board Services Diane Joseph Dowers told me that the school board has two FOI officers who process requests. The estimate to process my request was 28 hours, in the end the total preparation time was quoted at 5.7 hours. My request was the sixth request with the TDSB this year. Unless some of the other requests were very long and were occupying up all the time of TDSB’s offices, I’m not sure why the board needed another two months to process my request. In any case, I’ve requested all other completed FOI requests from TDSB for this year.

“Please be advised that we have two officers who process FOI requests, one of whom processed your file.  The review of all email communications for the time period January 12-16 consisted of a wide search of records for several employees, both manually and electronically.  A careful review of redactions and responsiveness to records was required in accordance with the Act and time-consuming redactions had to be applied.  Following two clarifications with you, the records were released with applied redactions with a one-time extension, all in accordance with the Act.”

In August, the TDSB informed me they were dropping the total fees down to $226 from $895 to process the request because there were a lot less pages to be processed than initially estimated. I should’ve made an announcement, but it was during my summer vacation and donations had ceased for several months. I did, however, stop advertising the banner ads for the fundraiser on my website and didn’t receive any more donations in that time period, until a recurring donor gave another $100 coincidentally right before publishing today. I’ve explained the situation to them and offered a reimbursement if they want it. I also figured out how to turn off donations on my GoFundMe page, which is now turned off. Here’s how the fundraising stands today:

$1,485 GoFundMe donations – $45 (GoFundMe processing fees) – $193 (HST) – $226 (TDSB processing fees) – $5 (initial fee) – $5 (mailing) – $50 (appeal fees)  = $961 profit

Considering I’ve written seven pieces and am still not finished with this story, the amount of hours I’ve spent on this project will exceed the estimated 25 hours at $30 per hour for a total of $750. $961 divided by $30  works out to 32 hours. By the end I’ll have spent closer to 40 hours on this project. I also made it clear at the outset that if the fee estimate changed we would apply additional funds to upcoming FOI requests.

If you like Raving Canuck’s journalism and would like to support us you can make a contribution here. My next investigative piece will look at the issue of migrants and refugees illegally entering Canada that has become a hot-button national topic. More on that soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Toronto District School Board Initial Access to Information Return on ‘Hijab Hoax’ Leaves More Questions than Answers

  1. Some interesting nuggets in here – “Offers of hijabs” from the public is choice! And the manager of support services’ idea to be compassionate and lie to avoid telling the truth that the girl was lying…. classic “fuzzy logic”

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