How many Pinecrest PS teachers were ‘investigated?’ No one will say

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More than a year after “chaos” at a west-end elementary school made headlines, a report on the situation has not been released and former teachers are still in the dark.

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A year and a half after accounts of chaos at a west-end elementary school emerged, Ottawa’s largest school board has decided a report on the situation will not be released — leaving staff wondering what a human rights investigation into an alleged “poisoned” environment has concluded.

“We want to see some justice,” said Michael Sternberg, a teacher at Pinecrest Public School who was sent home “under investigation” in June 2022. He retired soon after and never returned.

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“It was supposed to be an investigation into a toxic work environment. If it was all about communication, there was no communication.”

Sternberg was not alone. During the 2021-22 school year, six classroom teachers were sent home under investigation, and several occasional teachers hired to replace regular teachers left suddenly, Sternberg and several other sources have confirmed to this newspaper.

During that school year, teachers at Pinecrest told this newspaper they struggled to maintain order after the school’s administration adopted a philosophy aimed at respecting student “voice.”

“Teachers must move away from rewards and punishments, avoid power struggles with kids and stop wasting time trying to assert their power and authority in the classroom,” principal Naya Markanastasakis told staff in newsletters.

“We are not in this work to police children or to approach situations from a place of distrust and assumptions.”

Sternberg, a Grade 5 and 6 teacher, said he believes he was targeted for discipline because he spoke up about the situation.

Sternberg said he was called to the principal’s office in June 2022 and was sent home on full pay for “contributing to a poisoned work environment” after he sent out an email to staff with the subject line: “Students reporting they don’t feel safe!” 

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“There was chaos all year in the name of student voice,” said Sternberg in an interview. “Chaos reigned at that school. It’s absurd that the school board allowed it to happen.”

Some of the older students roamed the halls during class time, bullied other students, intimidated staff, and ignored requests to follow basic rules like not using their cell phones, he said.

“Students could just point their finger at an employee and accuse them of being sexist or racist, and they (the staff member) would be sent home.”

Teachers invited by the principal to provide their comments in the spring of 2022 on a digital “Jamboard” echoed concerns about disruptive, defiant and dangerous behaviour, including sexual harassment and physical assault and children bringing knives to school.

“Will there be a staff debrief about the attack in the boys (sic) bathroom?” said one message on the Jamboard.

“Safety concerns for students who are being intimidated by other students and the violent attacks that have occurred,” said another comment.

Other comments expressed concerns about students using cell phones with no instructional purpose, Grade 8 students roaming the hallways intimidating fellow students and staff as well as students “play fighting” with sticks.

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“When students won’t hand over their sticks and are ‘play fighting’ with them, what’s the next step?” said one post.

In the spring of 2022, the school board’s Office of the Human Rights and Equity Advisor (OHREA) began an investigation into what it said “appears to be a poisoned working and learning environment at Pinecrest.”

The arms-length office investigates complaints of discrimination based on human rights codes. The office planned to examine “interactions and conduct throughout Pinecrest amongst and between staff, students and families,” according to an email from the office sent to staff in April 2022.

The email advised staff to “refrain from yelling or raising voices at students and each other,” and to “continue to stop, interrupt and appropriately address the use of slurs and hate-related incidents.”

Staff were told not to discuss the situation or gossip about “perceived problems” at the school with students, families, the media or among themselves.

teacher in class
A teacher conducts a lesson at Pinecrest Public School. Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022 Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA

The school board declined to comment on individual acts of misbehaviour during that school year but provided this statement to this newspaper: “Like other schools incidents of violence, assault, hate, discrimination or other issues reported to the school administration would be investigated and acted upon as necessary.”

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In September 2023, Markanastasakis told parents in a letter what the school was doing in response to the human rights investigation report. She said the investigation identified two main areas to be addressed at the school level: communication and relationship building.

In the first category, she named improving communication among staff as a measure to “ensure that staff is better able to respond to issues as they arise.”

In the second category, recommendations included setting clear expectations for student conduct, increasing supervision during unstructured times and applying “a relationship-based, harm-reduction approach to managing student behaviour.”

She said that the school will work to be more inclusive, build a better sense of belonging and celebrate success. There would be new guidelines and training for staff “on how to address hate and discrimination,” she said.

“This work has already begun and, in fact, we made good progress in many of these areas last school year. We are seeing an increase in parent engagement, more students feel empowered to be self-sufficient and demonstrate leadership, and a renewed sense of pride and belonging at Pinecrest,” said Markanastasakis in the letter to parents and caregivers.

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She did not address the departure of staff members or the alleged poisoned work and learning environment.

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board has denied this newspaper access to the report, saying it “includes personal information related to employment matters and, in accordance with privacy legislation, will not be made public.”

The board declined to answer questions about how many staff members were sent home to be investigated and what happened to them.

“In response to this situation, actions that are being taken at the school moving forward have already been shared with the Ottawa Citizen, staff, and the community,” said OCDSB spokesperson Darcy Knoll. 

“We are unable to share specific details concerning internal employee matters due to privacy considerations.” 

Sternberg spent 22 years as a teacher and said it was a great career except for his last year at Pinecrest, which left him feeling disillusioned.

And he says the report from the Office of the Human Rights and Equity Advisor should be released. “It’s a public institution supported by taxpayers’ money.”

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MIchael Sternberg
Retired teacher Michael Sternberg near Pinecrest Public School. Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2022 Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA

In an audio recording of an emotional September 2023 staff meeting at Pinecrest, obtained by this newspaper, some staff members expressed skepticism about the investigation.

One said the investigation was supposed to be an arm’s-length investigation, but two people who were supposedly investigated (principal Naya Markanastasakis and superintendent Shannon Smith) were reporting the results, not Carolyn Tanner, the school board’s human rights and equity advisor.

“It feels like you investigated yourselves and you investigated us. It doesn’t seem very fair and it doesn’t seem very transparent and I’m really upset about it,” said a staff member at the meeting.

Another staffer at the meeting said she did not know if the board recognized the stress staff were under. “The triggers …. a lot of staff who were here two years ago and are still maybe currently here are not well.”

Added a staff member: “I have PTSD.”

With a breaking voice, one educator said there was a need for healing: “To say, move on, this is what it is, let’s move on, it hurts mentally, it hurts.”

“This is not supposed to happen in a country called Canada,” said another staffer at the meeting. “This is not North Korea. And I feel, I feel that sometimes I’m not in a democratic country,” she said in a voice breaking with emotion.

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Superintendent Smith also spoke at the meeting. “The gossip and rumours that were spread unfortunately by some of those in the staff painted a very inaccurate picture of what was happening and it created heightened fear amongst staff members,” she said. “Because of that …. we have procedure 542, which deals with staff misconduct.”

Smith told staff that those who were part of the misconduct process  were “because of complaints that were received from staff, students and parents.”

She said she had no role in the human rights office investigation. However, she said the school board is responsible for supporting Pinecrest in moving forward, including implementing recommendations to improve the situation, she said.

Smith acknowledged that some staff had experienced trauma and that support is available for educators under stress.

The school board, in a statement from spokesperson Darcy Knoll, said it was a “complex situation which required careful and thoughtful investigation.” A total of 34 people were interviewed by the Office of the Human Rights and Equity Advisor.

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“We recognize the length of time to complete the investigation may have added additional stress for staff,” said the school board statement. “The Office of the Human Rights and Equity Adviser is new and was dealing with a number of competing priorities throughout this period.”

This newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information request seeking the full report from the Human Rights and Equity Advisor as well as emails between Markanastasakis and Smith about the investigation. The application was denied.

This newspaper requested interviews with Markanastasakis and Smith. Both requests were denied by the school board.

When the Ottawa Citizen was offered a tour of Pinecrest in 2022, Markanastasakis said that “she never felt the school was unsafe” and that “she abides by ‘safe schools’ policies, suspension protocols, violent risk assessments and the creation of ‘safety plans’ for students who present a risk.”

Naya Markanastasakis
Pinecrest Public School principal Naya Markanastasakis. Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022 Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA

A letter from a school board lawyer said the act does not apply to proceedings or anticipated proceedings before a court tribunal, or other entity relating to labour relations or the employment of a person by the institution, as well as meetings or communications about labour relations or employment-related matters.

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“As the report of the OHREA directly relates to the conduct of employees at Pinecrest Public School, the correspondence between Principal Naya Markanastasakis and Superintendent Shannon Smith all relate to labour relations or to the employment of a person, as does the OHREA’s full report,” said a letter from board lawyer Richard Sinclair.

“Moreover, the report may be used as part of an ongoing grievance procedure and therefore relates to labour relations.”

The Ottawa unit of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario was equally tight-lipped when asked about the investigation involving its members and its response.

The union has filed multiple grievances related to Pinecrest, according to an email sent to staff.

In the 2022 article, when the Ottawa Citizen spotlighted some of the troubles at Pinecrest, Rebecca Zuckerbrodt, the president of the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation, said the local unit could not comment on the Pinecrest investigation until after the report was completed.

The report now complete, Zuckerbrodt again declined an interview request about the union’s response.

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“ETFO is engaged in a confidential mediation process with the board which has been fruitful,” she said in an email response to the request. “Our confidential discussions continue and an update will be provided, as appropriate, when the parties have completed discussions.”

But the report and mediation process all being kept confidential is of little help to people like Sternberg, the retired Pinecrest teacher who was sent home more than a year ago, who is still left in the dark as to what happened.

He said he thought the human rights investigation would bring out the truth. “They promised it would be impartial. I had hope in that.”

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