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Court finds WRDSB trustees acted reasonably in ending former teacher’s presentation

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Almost two years after a teacher with the Waterloo Regional District School Board was removed from a school board meeting, an Ontario court has dismissed her request to continue her presentation to trustees.

Carolyn Burjoski, who has since retired, argued the school board violated her right to freedom of expression when she was prevented from speaking about the appropriateness of books in public school libraries. She asked the court to overturn the board’s decision and allow her to finish her presentation.

A panel of three judges heard arguments in case back in June, but didn’t issue their ruling until last week.

They ultimately decided to dismiss Burjoski’s case and said she must pay $5,000 to the Waterloo Regional District School Board if the board requests compensation.

HISTORY OF THE CASE

At the Jan. 17, 2022 board meeting, Burjoski raised issues about two books available in elementary school libraries. She felt they discussed sexuality and gender in way that wasn’t age appropriate. One of the books was about a transgender teenager and the other was about asexuality.

Burjoski told the trustees at the meeting that "some of the books make it seem simple, even cool, to take puberty blockers and opposite sex hormones."

She was then stopped mid-presentation by board chair Scott Piatkowski who cited concerns her comments could violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Burjoski later retired as a teacher and began an online fundraiser in order to pursue legal action against the WRDSB.

ANOTHER CASE

Burjoski launched a $1.75 million dollar lawsuit in May 2022 against the school board and Piatkowski alleging defamation, libel and slander.

The school board, in response, asked the court to dismiss the case.

On Nov. 23, 2023, a judge rejected that request and said Burjoski’s lawsuit could proceed. He also ordered the school board to pay $30,000 for the former teacher’s legal fees.

Burjoski called the ruling a “major victory.”

The outcome of that lawsuit has not been decided yet.

CONSIDERATIONS IN THE CASE

Burjoski also launched a second legal case, asking the courts to overturn the board’s decision to remove her from the school board meeting. In court documents, she said it was “unreasonable” and “breached her right to freedom of expression.”

She asked to be allowed to make her presentation to the school board at a future meeting.

The judges considered several factors in their ruling.

Burjoski filled out a request form to speak at the January 2022 meeting, where she indicated that “she wished to speak on the topic of transparency in the library review process and to offer recommendations in that regard.” She also wanted to express concern about a board policy that “teachers must not disclose a student’s transgender status to their parents.” 

Burjoski did not mention that she would be advocating for the removal of books, the judges said.

On Dec. 20, 2021, she was advised that while she requested to speak on two separate topics she was only approved to speak about the need for transparency in the library review process.

At the beginning of the meeting on Jan. 17, all delegates were told they had 10 minutes to speak and their presentations must be confined to the issue they were approved to address.

Burjoski’s presentation went beyond the approved topic, and even after Piatkowski expressed concerns, she continued to discuss the appropriateness of specific books that addressed gender identity issues, the judges said.

She described the books as misleading and stated that one of them “makes very serious medical interventions seem like an easy cure for emotional and social distress.”

It was then that Piatkowski stopped Burjoski’s presentation.

One of the trustees challenged his decision, but after Piatkowski explained his reasons, trustees voted and the majority sided with Piatkowski.

JUDGES’ RULING

The judicial review looked at three issues: Was the decision by the board unreasonable? Was there a breach of procedural fairness? And was there a reasonable apprehension of bias in the decision?

They found that Piatkowski, as chair, had a responsibility to maintain order at the meeting. Additionally, the board did not state that Burjoski breached the Human Rights Code, only referenced it as part of a discussion about her comments. The decision to end Burjoski’s presentation, they said, was reached through a democratic process by elected trustees.

The judges felt that this was both reasonable and adequate.

As for procedural fairness, the panel felt that “the restriction on her freedom of expression was minimal” because Burjoski began to speak about “topics irrelevant to those outlined in her request for a delegation.”

The judges also considered Burjoski’s concerns about bias from the board.

She claimed Piatkowski disparaged her by calling her comments “transphobic,” that she engaged in “hate” and “derogatory speech,” and caused “harm.”

The WRDSB argued that those comments were made after the meeting and also the final decision was made by the five members of the board. Piatkowski, they said, passed the chair position to the vice-chair for the vote.

In their ruling, the judges found “no basis” for bias by the board.

The panel then decided to dismiss the case.

REACTION FROM BURJOSKI

CTV News reached out to Burjoski and the lawyer representing her in the case.

“I'm obviously disappointed, but also surprised by the ruling,” she said in an email. “My legal team is currently reviewing the decision. I will make a statement in the near future.”

REACTION FROM THE SCHOOL BOARD

Joanne Weston, chair of the school board, responded to the court’s ruling on the WRDSB website. Her statement reads, in part: “The court found ‘no basis established upon which any finding of a reasonable apprehension of bias, or any actual bias, on the part of the WRDSB could be justified.’ We will continue to uphold the board’s bylaws and policies and to act in accordance with the board’s obligations under the Education Act.”

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