School boards suspend use of Bill Blair-linked charitable program over privacy concerns
An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo. (Source: iStock, DONGSEON_KIM)
OTTAWA -- Two Toronto-area school boards have suspended their participation in a charitable program Public Safety Minister Bill Blair helped establish following allegations that children's personal information wasn't adequately protected online.
The Ontario privacy commissioner is also looking into the charity's program.
The news comes just days after CTVNews.ca reported that parents filed an 85-page formal complaint about the charity Merry Go Round Children's Foundation’s program Kids, Cops and Computers.
The program, which has since rebranded as ComKids, provides students with laptops in exchange for the 12- and 13-year-old students writing blogs and participating in sessions where they were paired with police officers. The complaint only identifies incidents from the 2018-19 school year.
The 85-page formal complaint obtained by CTVNews.ca alleges that that the blogs, some of which are still accessible online, contain personal details about the children that could have put them at risk.
The complaint included screenshots of students allegedly publicly sharing their medical information, their full names, religion, school names and the city where they live.
The complaint also claimed the children posted videos of themselves in their bedrooms.
The parents behind the complaint allege the program, which was primarily directed at low-income students, "increased the risk of TDSB students being contacted by sexual predators and human traffickers."
Parents said they are currently drafting a second complaint that will be sent to the Catholic school board, which already suspended their participation in the program.
"We can confirm that the ComKids programs in TCDSB schools for 2019-20 have been put on hold out of an abundance of caution for student safety," wrote Toronto Catholic District School Board spokesperson Shazia Vlahos in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca.
While the schools used a different website platform from the one the TDSB used, the board still "wanted to make sure that the program was on hold until more information is known," the statement said.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird also confirmed they have "currently paused participation in the program."
Both school boards have also sent reminders to students to deactivate their blogs.
Blair still serves as honorary chair of the organization and, according to a statement from his office, "helped establish" the program in 1998. However, his office maintains that his involvement was "strictly limited to an Honourary role only."
According to Blair's spokesperson, Marie-Emannuelle Cadieux, Blair has never been involved with the administration of the organization or its programs and he holds no formal role.
"He has not had any direct contact with the organization since 2014," Cadieux told CTVNews.ca.
In a since-deleted video from 2014, Blair described the founder of the charity walking into his office to ask if the Toronto police could act as mentors to the program. The meeting between the founder and Blair took place prior to Blair becoming the chief of Toronto police.
In the video, Blair said it was a "great privilege in the Toronto Police Service to have an opportunity to be participants in this program."
Mark Zwicker, the president and CEO of ComKids, said his charity is "aware of the report" but has "not reviewed its contents."
"We are working with our partners at the TDSB and will cooperate fully with any investigation. We are also reviewing our internal processes to confirm these allegations have no merit," said Zwicker in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca.
Zwicker added that "creating a safe environment for children to learn digital literacy has been a cornerstone" of the program "since its inception."
The Toronto Police Service also expressed its concern over the allegations in an email to CTVNews.ca.
"In light of the allegations that have been made, the Service will work with ComKids and the TDSB on a review of the existing curriculum to ensure it is consistent with online safety messaging," TPS Spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an emailed statement.