York trustee barred from board meetings after ‘offensive’ remarks

In an unprecedented move, a controversial York Region trustee has been banned from school board meetings for a year after complaints over online comments that were deemed offensive to the Black community and disparaging to women.

Rookie trustee Elizabeth Terrell-Tracey — who landed in hot water even before she was elected, for postings about her competitor’s country of origin — was also barred from attending any graduation ceremonies at schools in her ward and other committee meetings. She faces restrictions on her use of board-related email and social media accounts.

The board’s integrity commissioner said her “cumulative actions” are “blemishing” to York Region schools.

Terrell-Tracey’s behaviour was addressed at a meeting Monday night.

Integrity commissioner Sandhya Kohli has previously urged the York Region District School Board to “reprimand” the trustee for East Gwillimbury/Whitchurch-Stouffville after she described receiving the “third formal complaint” on Terrell-Tracey.

While unable to disclose the identity of the person who filed the complaint May 17, calling it “confidential,” Kohli said her investigation found Terrell-Tracey to have contravened a section of the trustee code of conduct that deals with “integrity and dignity of office,” as well as violating other clauses dealing with discreditable conduct.

Kohli’s investigation found Terrell-Tracey’s tweet quoting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” aimed at an activist leading the charge to get her out of office, was problematic.

Kohli wrote “notwithstanding varied scholarly interpretations of its meaning, the fact is that tweeting a verse from ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ caused a negative reaction from the public, one of dismay and alarm, because it hearkens back to the era of slavery.”

While this tweet varied in literal and scholarly interpretation, it “was taken as an affront to the Black community by some of its members, and also by other members of the public at large.”

Kohli also concluded the tweet can’t be read in isolation from her previous comments made to Toronto Star reporter Kristin Rushowy in December 2018, in which Terrell-Tracey said “a person that doesn’t stay quiet in the kitchen is why they [the public] do not like me. I have many male qualities that traditionalists do not like.”

“This comment was construed as disparaging of women and was the subject of two separate formal complaints for which I issued a report, and presented to the board on March 5, 2019,” Kohli wrote.

The commissioner found Terrell-Tracey’s comments “distasteful, derogatory, out-of-place, and offensive.”

Reached by the Star on Wednesday, Terrell-Tracey apologized for upsetting people.

“I am sorry, I did write on Twitter to quote a religious gospel song lyric, although I didn’t mean anything by it,” she said. “It was in response to a reference and picture of heaven, I am sorry that I have upset people.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation that I’m in and I do believe things happen for a reason,” she added. “Also I’ve been praying for community peace since September, and I look forward to the future.”

Despite the sanctions she faces, Terrell-Tracey said she will continue to try to deal with her constituents.

“I’m still allowed to work with constituents who contact me. I’m also allowed to do school visits, and I’m also allowed to attend school meetings, as anybody in the public could attend as well,” she added. “I support the trustees, and I look forward to July 1, 2020, when I will have most of my voting powers back.

“Maybe this is a way to have some closure and some way to move forward, so I think it’s important as a public servant to be responsible to the community,” she said.

While the slew of actions targeting Terrell-Tracey limit her power as a trustee, the York school board can’t dismiss her or suspend her pay.

In a message Tuesday, York Region District School Board chair Corrie McBain said Terrell-Tracey is “ineligible” to represent the board on the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, any government agency or outside organization seeking trustee membership from the board for the remainder of the 2018-22 term of office.

McBain also said the board is going to “ensure” that the community continues to have access to representation through staff, including local superintendents, central board and trustee services staff members and the chair and vice chair.

Terrell-Tracey is no stranger to controversy.

During the election campaign, postings on her Facebook account took aim at her rival, Lena Singh, for being an immigrant. She later said her account was hacked, but also apologized for the comments.

Sanctions against Terrell-Tracey include being immediately barred from attending private, advisory and public meetings until the end of June 2020. She’s also barred from attending student discipline, supervised alternative learning review and negotiations advisory committee meetings for the remainder of her 2018-22 term of office.

In addition, she faces restrictions on the use of her school board email account and is barred from attending elementary or secondary graduations in her capacity as trustee until the end of June 2020.

This isn’t the first time the board finds itself grappling with controversy over racist comments. In 2016, allegations of racism, misspending and a culture of fear rocked the board, prompting the Ministry of Education to intervene and issue a scathing report.

In 2017, Georgina trustee Nancy Elgie stepped down after an outcry over her use of a racial slur in referring to a Black parent in the board.

With files from Emma Sandri, Kristin Rushowy and Noor Javed

Dina Al-Shibeeb is a general assignment reporter for YorkRegion.com and its sister papers. Reach her via email: dibrahim@yrmg.com

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