Vancouver school district introduces new rules to protect staff from bullying by elected trustees

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      The Vancouver school district is moving to strengthen protection of staff against bullying.

      New regulations are being introduced, which are specifically aimed at the conduct of board trustees elected by the public.

      The changes are in response to two investigations that have concluded that certain members of the previous board harassed and humiliated senior management staff.

      The said board was fired by the province in October 2016, and Dianne Turner was appointed as sole trustee.

      In a media conference earlier this month, Turner said that some employees in the district are apprehensive about the likely comeback of the previous board.

      Revisions are being sought to the code of ethics for board members and workplace policy in a couple of reports prepared by interim secretary treasurer Guy Bonnefoy for the board meeting on Wednesday (June 21).

      In the two reports, Bonnefoy recalled that an external investigation substantiated claims that a toxic work environment existed in the district due to the conduct of certain trustees.

      The district executive also noted that in a separate investigation, WorkSafeBC concluded that bullying and harassment of staff had taken place.

      “However, WorkSafeBC noted that ‘there are challenges with the VSB's implementation of the corrective actions set out in its procedures as elected school trustees are not in a traditional employment relationship with the VSB’ and stated that ‘[i]n summary, with the inability of VSB to effectively apply corrective actions against trustees, it is understandable that supervisors and workers would be hesitant to report alleged bullying and harassment for fear of reprisal.’," Bonnefoy wrote.

      External investigator Roslyn Goldner wrote in her report that many witnesses described a “culture of fear” in the district, in which “staff felt vulnerable and at risk of personal attack and ridicule”.

      Goldner also reported that actions by the then trustees belonging to Vision Vancouver “created a toxic work environment”.

      Former Vision Vancouver trustees Mike Lombardi, Patti Bacchus, Joy Alexander, and Allan Wong have denied that they bullied staff.

      In his report on changes to the code of ethics for board members, Bonnefoy said that the revisions will better ensure “accountability of Trustees”.

      “One element of the Code of Ethics relates to the obligation to ‘work co-operatively to further public education...' This would extend to an obligation to work co-operatively with staff (and the public),” Bonnefoy wrote.

      In a separate report on workplace policy, Bonnefoy wrote that it is important to have a policy that addresses concerns about retaliation because of “ongoing concerns that could reasonably be held by staff about retaliation in relation to the events of 2016”.

      “ln light of the limited ability to address remedial consequences with Board members, it is also important to have in place a policy that expressly applies to the conduct of Board members who can be held to the same standard as other employees of the Board and District,” the district executive also wrote.

      Changes to the code of ethics for board members and workplace policy are expected to be approved on June 26. 

      [Update: After the article went online, former Vision Vancouver school trustee Patti Bacchus offered her comment.]

      In a call to the Straight, former Vision Vancouver school trustee Patti Bacchus said that the proposed changes are good.

      “They would address any concerns that senior managers had about their interactions with the elected trustees,” Bacchus said.

      Bacchus went on to note that one of the concerns she has over what transpired last fall and the subsequent investigations was that trustees at the time were not aware that there were issues with the staff until senior managers went on leave.

      “That includes the superintendent leaving without even talking to the board chair at all, just sending a message through human resources, and that is a really unusual situation,” she said, referring to Scott Robinson.

      According to Bacchus, trustees didn’t know anything until media reports came out about the work environment in the district.

      Bacchus also has concerns about the two investigations that followed.

      “The way these investigations were handled struck me as highly political in nature,” the former trustee said.

      According to Bacchus, the investigations were not used in a constructive manner.

      “They were used not to resolve a problem,” Bacchus said. “They were used in my opinion to politically smear trustees who had challenged government.”

      With the district bringing in new rules, Bacchus said these would protect staff as well as trustees because the regulations would provide a clear process to resolve issues.

      Going back to what happened before, Bacchus said: “We were never told who made complaints. These have all been anonymous to this day.”

      Referring to the new regulations that are likely going to be approved later this month, Bacchus added: "This would have prevented what happened to me and my colleagues and the kind of really kangaroo court process where there are anonymous allegations."