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Parents 'in disbelief' after ISIS flag sent out by Toronto school principal in email

For Canadians, and millions the world over, the infamous black and white flag flown by ISIS is a symbol of terrorism, death and persecution.

When an image of that very flag was sent in an email to parents in October by the principal of a downtown Toronto elementary school, it left some like May Woo “shocked” and “in disbelief.”

In a message meant to celebrate the beginning of Somali Heritage Month and Islamic Heritage Month, principal Darlene Jones copied and pasted an image of the ISIS flag in an email to approximately 700 families whose children attend her school in Toronto’s Parkdale community.

“If within an inner-city school we can have something like the ISIS flag sent out for Islamic Heritage month, what else (inside the school) is happening?” asked Woo.

Multiple families who’ve spoken with CTV National News are still searching for the answer to that question. Why would an elementary school principal send an email that includes a symbol of terrorism in a message meant to celebrate Islamic culture?

CTV National News called Jones and asked her that very question over the phone. She declined to answer, saying that “any concerns are to be sent to my communications officer” at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

We asked the TDSB’s Executive Director of Communications, Ryan Bird, how this email could have been sent out. He didn’t have a clear answer, admitting to CTV National News, “it's not exactly clear how that may have happened. We don’t believe there was any ill intent there. But the fact is it should never have happened and gone out, and that’s why she has apologized.”

In a follow-up email in October, Jones wrote to families, “I would like to apologize to all who were harmed by the image I sent last week to celebrate Islamic Heritage Month. The image was offensive and harmful and does not represent Islam.”

However, she gave no explanation as to why she sent out the image.

An email sent to families of Dr. Rita Cox – Kina Minogok Public School students in Toronto included an image of the ISIS flag.

Jones, who’s a Black woman, is the principal at Dr. Rita Cox – Kina Minogok Public School (formerly known as Queen Victoria Elementary). The school is located in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, which is one of many multicultural hubs in the city.

On the doorstep of the school are multiple low-income apartment buildings and co-ops. For many students, the school is a lifeline. It has historically run hot meal programs and snack programs for children who are living below the poverty line.

Multiple Muslim children also attend the school. Woo, whose daughter is in eighth grade at the school, says a Muslim mother came to her following the ISIS email and said, “I don’t feel that my children are safe here,” going on to say, “every time I drop them off [at school] I pray that they’re going to be okay.”

Woo says it’s conversations like this with fellow parents that “break my heart.”

Multiple parents claim Jones has shown a troubling pattern of behaviour in her year and a half at the school. This includes an allegation that she mistook Woo’s 13-year-old daughter for a teacher and asked the girl to supervise other children during recess.

“My daughter … told me, ‘I dread going [to school] I don’t even want to see Mrs. Jones,’” Woo told CTV National News.

Woo claims that full-time teachers at the school have told her that Jones has mistaken them for substitute teachers, even though they’d been working under Jones’s leadership for 12 months or more.

Through a school board spokesperson, Jones has denied the allegations.

However, CTV National News obtained a second email sent by Jones that further calls her attention to important details into question. In October, Principal Jones sent out a school wide-email informing hundreds of families that polling stations for the “federal election” would be open at the school the next day. Though it was in fact a municipal election taking place, not a federal one. Jones also included the wrong date for families to come to the school to vote in the very same email.

We asked the TDSB if they believe attention to detail is important for a principal who’s in charge of the safety and well-being of hundreds of students. Bird replied, “I think attention to detail is important for anyone at the TDSB, including principals and other school-based staff.”

CTV National News has learned this is Jones's first time at the helm of an elementary school as a principal. She was put in charge shortly after another recent troubling event at the very same school. In 2020, a former principal was removed after a racist letter targeting Black staff members was sent out.

While the board has never publicly shared who sent the hurtful letter, the principal was put on indefinite leave. At the time, the TDSB apologized for their delay in acting on the letter and vowed to do better.

When asked why they appointed a first-time principal, to a school with complex needs and a history of traumatic events, Bird said that the board feels they’ve found “a completely capable principal to take over the role.”

Woo, whose family has endured both incidents involving the two separate principals, points out that “this is at a school where the TDSB has said [they’ve] mishandled things and promised to do better. Is this the board doing better?”

Jerry Flores, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, who’s spent his career working with at-risk youth, believes “putting a brand-new administrator and principal in a high needs school is not the best idea, and not the best choice.”

The professor also believes that if these events had taken place in a school located in a more affluent neighbourhood, the board would have been more proactive as opposed to reacting now months after an ISIS flag was emailed out to hundreds of families.

“The fact that there appears to be a historical culture that includes a lack of action when it comes to racism and injustice, that’s the bit that’s most concerning,” Flores said. “The fact that the principal who sent home this [ISIS flag] email is herself a person of colour, complicates the situation, but with that being said, any adult leader in a school needs to be held accountable for their actions. I think that the school board needs to act immediately.”

Parents and students at the school are also fuming after learning that the curriculum at the school was changed by Jones and her leadership team in the middle of the educational year. Students had been learning in a rotary system, where they had different teachers for different subjects, which helped prepare them for high school. However, they’ve been told, with no warning, that they’ll now have to stay in their homeroom with only one teacher for the majority of the day.

Following two years of educational upheaval during the pandemic, for this school-based decision to happen in the middle of the academic year, has some families feeling that their children’s educational well-being is again being put in jeopardy.

Woo believes students on multiple levels “are being traumatized. I don’t believe students are going to look back at this time with the TDSB as a wonderful nurturing [educational] experience.”

CTV National News has learned that this Thursday the TDSB’s Director of Education Colleen Russell-Rawlins and Superintendent of Education Debbie Donsky will be attending Dr. Rita Cox – Kina Minogok Public School. When asked if any action at all will be taken against Jones for sending out an ISIS flag in an email to elementary school families, the board has signalled that they believe the apology is enough.

Multiple parents who’ve spoken with CTV National News disagree, including a “flabbergasted” Woo.

“Why are we even in a position where we have a principal who needs to apologize for something like this? What is the environment that our kids are supposed to be educated and nurtured in?” she asked. Top Stories

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