The Peel District School Board (PDSB) serves one of the largest multi-faith student populations in Ontario. Recently the board has been facing intense scrutiny regarding its accommodation of Muslim students who want to pray during school hours.
Late last year, the PDSB introduced a new procedure that would oblige all students to choose from a selection of stock sermons for Friday prayers. Previously students could write their own sermons, which they submitted to school administrators for approval. The stock sermons for Muslim students were written in consultation with several Imams (leaders of prayers and worship at mosques) and were meant to make things simpler for administrative staff. At a public board meeting, Muslim students and parents pushed back on the change, saying the board’s decision-making process lacked transparency and made them feel stigmatized as a community. After consulting with Muslim students and families, in January 2017 the board reversed its decision and reinstated the previous policy.
Throughout this process, protestors disrupted the public meetings with increasing intensity. Their tactics included tearing pages from the Qur’an and engaging in hate speech. At one point the police were called, and the PDSB has since increased security at these meetings. In order to quell the misinformation circulating on social media, the PDSB issued a clear and detailed fact sheet on religious accommodation (the school board had already posted the religious accommodation guidelines on its website). Ontario Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter and Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau issued a joint statement of support for schools providing space for Muslim students’ Friday prayers. The PDSB has since declared it will no longer discuss religious accommodation at public meetings. And yet, tensions have continued to escalate.
These recent events should be seen in the context of the spate of Islamophobic sentiment that occurred in Canada over the past several months, including the terrorist attack on Muslims at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in Quebec City and the demonstrations in Toronto against Liberal motion-103, condemning Islamophobia. If the PDSB incident is any indication, public schools may be facing a new level of scrutiny regarding religious accommodation.
I enter this discussion as a scholar who has extensively researched religious accommodation in the education field. As a doctoral student, I focused on comparing how and why England, Scotland, Ontario and Quebec accommodated Muslim students in public schools, as well as whether they provided funding to Islamic schools. The jurisdictions vary in terms of how religious accommodation is addressed in the education system, but they have all grappled with some form of controversy.
Religious accommodation controversies bring a number of issues to the fore, and bigotry is one of them. The bigotry and Islamophobia that have been swirling around the PDSB incident have been commented on elsewhere. However, not much has been written about the underlying causes, of which a major one is poor communication between school administrators and students. I believe this issue, and how to avoid similar communications breakdown in the future, deserve further attention.
What steps should be taken?
Cultivate inclusive lines of communication: Parents, students and school administrators must be on the same page regarding religious accommodation procedures. This includes initially communicating the guidelines and procedures and then disseminating any changes that are subsequently made. The lines of communication between these parties need always to be open.
Many school boards have processes to facilitate dialogue with school communities on a number of issues. In the case of religious accommodation, three of the four jurisdictions I examined had either convened a council with faith leaders or had contacted faith leaders for consultation. In the PDSB case, Imams were consulted about the preselected prayers. This makes sense: getting input from faith leaders ensures that important aspects of the various faiths are recognized in the procedures.
The point of contact within the school community, however, cannot be only with faith leaders. The PDSB’s failure to include students in the process led to confusion over its intentions. As one student said, “it’s as though you’re looking at students through a lens of guilt.” As the board provided little or no information to students until the procedural change had already been introduced, its intentions were open to misinterpretation. Including students from the beginning — by inviting feedback about the proposed change — would have demonstrated transparency and inclusiveness.
One school board I studied improved communication on its religious accommodation procedures by making contact with the students and families several times, either through verbal or written follow-ups. This ensured everyone was on the same page, and dispelled any potential confusion or misunderstanding. The school board adopted this procedure, however, only after it had dealt with its own high-profile religious accommodation controversy, which ended up in court. Ultimately, the new procedure has yielded positive results. According to the school board’s information, there have been fewer complaints, and communication has been more transparent and open.
Disseminate materials to school communities. School communities must be provided with information about the school board’s religious accommodation policies and procedures. One school board I studied, which has a large multi-faith student population, did not circulate its guidelines or procedures. Even after it faced a religious accommodation controversy, it still did not circulate or publicize the guidelines. Ultimately a Muslim parent’s organization informed the students and parents about the procedures.
In this case, many families had been left in the dark about their options or received partial information, and the responsibility fell on an external organization to provide information. The school board’s failure to disseminate information sends the wrong message to students seeking religious accommodation; it also creates the conditions for confusion and misunderstanding.
Not having access to the appropriate resources can also lead people to make false assumptions. Critics of religious accommodation often complain that prayer is a violation of the secularity of public schools. With accurate, accessible information this complaint can be refuted, at the same time calming concerns or fears about what religious accommodation means.
The fact sheet the PDSB posted on its website is a good example of accessible, accurate information. It outlined what religious accommodation is (a legal requirement), what it isn’t (an undue hardship on schools, financial or otherwise), and what it does (facilitates students’ right to practice their faith). It also highlighted the clear line between the school as a secular institution and its obligation to respect the right of students to practice their faith.
As the PDSB controversy has shown, a fact sheet alone will likely not deter those who want to use religious accommodation to promote their bigoted views. But disseminating and publicizing accurate information about the school board’s policies and procedures does send two clear messages to the school community: first, that the board supports students seeking religious accommodation, regardless of the attention it might attract; and second, that it is making the tools available so people have accurate information.
Ensuring that students have the proper tools and resources to be full participants in their education is paramount. And while some school boards are achieving this, the record needs improvement, and what better time than the present?
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