Colleen Russell-Rawlins departs Peel District School Board to join Toronto

By Lincoln DePradine

Colleen Russell-Rawlins

The departure of Colleen Russell-Rawlins, after less than a year at the troubled Peel District School Board (PDSB), is not sitting well with community activists, who have long complained about the marginalization of African-Canadian students and want more done to stamp out anti-Black racism at Peel Schools.

“When Russell-Rawlins was hired, you would expect that because of the issues facing Peel that she would have been hired for a minimum of two or three years to create stability,’’ said community activist Idris Orughu, well-known in Peel as an education advocate for Black youth. “Surprisingly, we heard Colleen had taken a new role as the director of the Toronto District School Board.’’

Problems over the years in the PDSB system have provoked protests from parents, students and community members such as Orughu.

A ministry of education review of the practices and treatment of Black and other racialized students in PDSB cited widespread racism in the school system.

Last March, Orughu was falsely accused by trustees of uttering harassing and threatening comments. The matter was referred to Peel police and Orughu was sent a notice of trespass and banned from stepping on PDSB properties.

Idris Orughu

The board, through ministry-appointed PDSB supervisor Bruce Rodrigues, issued a formal apology to Orughu last September.

“The issuing of the notice of trespass and contacting the Peel Regional Police were acts of discrimination and anti-Black racism,’’ Rodrigues said.

Russell-Rawlins joined PDSB on August 5, 2020, as “permanent interim director’’. She was the first-ever Black female director in the history of PDSB.

Rodrigues, commenting at the time on her hiring, said, “we are confident that Ms Russell- Rawlins possesses all the necessary attributes to move the Peel board forward. She brings with her a strong commitment to student learning and success, an exceptional background in addressing issues of anti-Black, African and Caribbean racism, anti-oppression and equity. We are delighted to have her and look forward to working with her.”

However, last week, it was announced that Russell-Rawlins was joining Toronto District School Board (TDSB), from August 5, as director of education. She said she was “honoured’’ to be appointed education director for TDSB.

“In my role at the Peel District School Board, I have focused on eradicating systemic racism and oppression, and I will continue to do so at the TDSB. Throughout my career, equity was my foundation for improving student engagement, well-being, and achievement,’’ Russell-Rawlins said. “I welcome the opportunity to continue to work with trustees, students, families, and dedicated staff to ignite learning and innovation and focus on the success of students who are currently underserved.’’

Orughu expressed both surprise and shock at the news that Russell-Rawlins was leaving PDSB for TDSB.

“The news was shocking, was devastating, and was a setback for Peel,’’ he told The Caribbean Camera in an interview.

Orughu claimed there was “push back’’ against Russell-Rawlins during her tenure at PDSB.

“The rot in Peel is so deep. There are people who still want the status quo and believe too much is being given to the Black community,’’ he said.

Orughu questioned the nature of the contract offered Russell-Rawlins when she was hired by PDSB, asking, “why was her contract done in such a way that she could just pack up and leave?  Is Peel not as important as we thought it was?’’

Orughu is maintaining a keen interest in whom the PDSB would hire as its next education director. “The Black community wants somebody with lived experience who would understand the complexity of Peel,’’ he said.

“We believe that the crisis in Peel, at this juncture, needs and requires a Peel solution. The Black community must have a role to play in who becomes the director. The community must be involved directly.’’