24-year veteran educator reported intimidation, harassment during Toronto District School Board diversity, equity training sessions
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is facing calls for a public inquiry into events that might have contributed to the suicide of Richard Bilkszto, a former principal who was suing the board for alleged bullying during a diversity, equity, and inclusion training (DEI) workshop.
The Toronto School Administrator’s Association (TSAA) issued a July 24 statement calling for an investigation and demanded that an independent and impartial investigator be appointed by Ontario’s Minister of Education “to conduct a thorough inquiry into the concerns raised” by Mr. Bilkszto before his death.
The organization, which represents over 1,000 principals and vice principals within the TDSB, said Mr. Bilkszto had contacted the TSAA in 2021 and expressed “concern that he had been bullied, intimidated, and harassed” by facilitators at a professional learning session organized by senior staff of the TDSB.
“At that time, TSAA requested that the Board investigate the concerns that had been raised by Richard. To our knowledge, an investigation was never undertaken,” said TSAA.
The TSAA letter, signed by Chair Rita Gallippi and Vice Chair Alisa Cashore, said the group has “communicated on many occasions our concern about the lack of meaningful response from the employer” in response to allegations of bullying, intimidation, or harassment in the course of their work.
Mr. Bilkszto’s lawyer, Lisa Bildy, announced on July 20 that her client had died on July 13 at his home in Toronto at age 60. Ms. Bildy said Mr. Bilkszto experienced an “affront to that stellar reputation in the spring of 2021, causing him severe mental distress.”
“Unfortunately, the stress and effects of these incidents continued to plague Richard. Last week he succumbed to this distress,” said his lawyer. “His family and friends have been left reeling and wishing they could have had the chance to convince him that he was loved, respected, and needed here.”
A WSIB ruling found that Mr. Bilkszto “had been the subject of workplace bullying after a series of ‘Equity Sessions’ coordinated by the TDSB and provided by the KOJO Institute.”
According to a July 6 National Post column, the WSIB ruling stated: “Based on the information on file, I am satisfied that the conduct of the speaker … was abusive, egregious, and vexatious, and rises to the level of workplace harassment and bullying.”
The board ruled that the DEI instructor, Kiki Ojo-Thompson, CEO of the KOJO Institute and a self-described “anti-racism and anti-Black racism educator, speaker, and organizational change facilitator,” intended to “cause reputational damage and to ‘make an example’” of Mr. Bilkszto.
Calls for Inquiry
In a statement issued on July 20, Ontario- and New York state-qualified, non-practising lawyer Michael Teper called for a public inquiry on behalf of Save Our Schools TDSB members—a group of parents, educators, students, and community members.
“Richard’s death should never have happened. We call on the TDSB to publicly apologize to Richard’s family for the bullying of their beloved son, brother, and uncle. We also call on the Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, to investigate and ensure this never happens again,” said the group.
A website dedicated to the fight for justice for Richard Bilkszto has been set up with a petition and a call to action that encourages citizens to write to their provincial member of Parliament requesting a public investigation into the principal’s death.
The template demand letter requests that the government investigate “the role of TDSB officials before, during, and after” the DEI sessions, and the role of the facilitators during these sessions. It also asks that the inquiry looks into the awarding of contracts to all DEI trainers and facilitators by the TDSB, a review of DEI content and training at the school district and other school boards, “to ensure sessions are not used to target individuals, and to ensure respectful dialogue.”
Finally, the sample letter asks for an investigation into “workplace morale of staff in the TDSB.”
“The TDSB claims to champion equity, diversity, and inclusion, while it failed to support a distinguished educator and an advocate for equality within its own organization,” states the letter.
In response, Mr. Lecce said Ontario’s Ministry of Education will be looking into the matter, reported the Toronto Sun on July 24.
“These are serious and disturbing allegations. No staff member should ever be subject to harassment while in their place of work,” Mr. Lecce said.
“I have tasked my officials to review what happened in this instance in the TDSB and bring me options to reform professional training and strengthen accountability on school boards so this never happens again.”
‘Serious Emotional Damage’
Mr. Teper told The Epoch Times on July 24 that Mr. Bilkszto had been with the TDSB for 24 years and previously taught in Buffalo, New York.
“I knew him. He was no emotional weakling. Yet the treatment he received at the hands of a service provider with which the TDSB engaged, and the indifference that he apparently received from his colleagues and superiors at the TDSB, inflicted serious emotional damage,” said Mr. Teper.
“We don’t know for sure what was going through Richard’s mind in the hours and days before he took his own life. Yet it is clear as a matter of common sense that his experience in this so-called Diversity Equity and Inclusion seminar loomed large in his mind and played a significant role in his distress,” he added.
Mr. Teper said there are other potential school administrators at risk. “I’m worried about the others at the TDSB, and other school boards, who have experienced similar intimidation from these zealots who preach ‘kindness’ and ’empathy’ but exhibit the exact opposite,” he said.
According to Mr. Teper, a public inquiry is necessary because in his view, “the TDSB cannot be trusted with a private inquiry.”
Calls for an inquiry follow an earlier demand on July 23 by Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee Markus de Domenico for a pause to all DEI workshops until an investigation is conducted into the circumstances leading up to principal Bilkszto’s suicide.
“We need to learn from these tragic events and ensure the safety of participants and allow qualified presenters to enrich our staff. That’s not what happened,” said Mr. de Domenico.
Mr. Bilkszto’s lawyer, Ms. Bildy, told The Epoch Times on July 23 that the school board needs to learn from this situation.
“Part of Richard’s legacy should be that we stop walking on eggshells and seriously examine the purpose, process, and value of this type of DEI training,” she said.
“I agree with the calls for an independent public inquiry, not only into the events at the equity session Richard attended and its aftermath, but into all DEI content and training,” she added.