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Week-long rally at Sir James Whitney calls for new superintendent

Protest2 [1]

BELLEVILLE – Protesters including (clockwise from bottom left) Chantal Degudre, Sarah Ripley, Karen Thompson and Scott Mark outside the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf on Dundas Street West Tuesday. Photo by Brendan Burke, QNet News

By Brendan Burke [2]

BELLEVILLE – Concerned parents and community members are demonstrating this week at Belleville’s Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf [3], calling for a change in the leadership of the agency that oversees the school.

Demonstrators lined the school’s Dundas Street entrance Tuesday, waving to honking motorists and flashing signs that read “New superintendent now” and “We are a linguistic minority.”

Organizers of the roadside rally said the protests are a response to a recent decision by the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Provincial Schools Branch [4] – which oversees eight schools for special-needs students, including Sir James Whitney – to hire a hearing person, rather than a deaf individual, as its superintendent. The branch has never had a deaf person as its head.

Scott Mark and Karen Thompson, two organizers of Belleville’s rally, said the group has put forth three demands it wants the province to meet.

First, the group is calling for the immediate resignation of current Provincial Schools Branch superintendent Jeanne Leonard. Secondly, #PSBProtest, the collective’s social-media moniker, says more transparency within the branch is needed. Lastly, protesters want a new deaf superintendent to be appointed.

In what is being labelled by some protesters as a token bid to appease the discontent, the Provincial Schools Branch recently created a new position, assistant superintendent, and a deaf applicant was hired. That prompted the demonstrators to ask: why not a deaf person for the top brass?

Karen Thompson, a deaf parent of a Sir James Whitney student and one of three organizers of the rally, said that’s the question she is asking.

“There are deaf principals, deaf (educational assistants),” Thompson said through an interpreter. “Shouldn’t the top position be held by a deaf person?”

Fellow organizer Scott Mark echoed the sentiment. A parent, Sir James Whitney alumnus and deaf person, Mark said that only a deaf superintendent could know what’s best for the  students.

Sarah Ripley, a demonstrator and hearing parent of a Grade 6 Sir James Whitney student, said she joined the protest for one reason: the kids.

“I’m here to support my daughter. I want to make sure she has a deaf role model within the Provincial Schools Branch other than her teachers,” she said.

With the position of superintendent occupied by a hearing person for over a century, Ripley added, leadership reform is long overdue.

“It’s about time,” she said. “It’s now or never.”

QNet News could not reach the Ministry of Education or the current superintendent, Leonard, for comment. Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler, however, released a statement to the Belleville Intelligencer saying that the ministry is committed to the results of the hiring process. The statement cites Leonard’s credentials and qualifications: she is trained as an American Sign Language/English interpreter with a graduate degree in deaf education.

Thompson said Tuesday morning that she was optimistic after learning that a meeting would take place that afternoon between a representative of the group and June Rogers, director at the Provincial Schools Branch. But she will continue to protest until the group’s demands are met, she said.

“We will continue. We will persevere.”

When Ripley was asked about online comments saying it is discriminatory for the group to demand that only a deaf person be hired for the top job, she said such a position is based on ignorance and a lack of understanding.

“Before you make a comment, come down here. Come talk to us before you assume,” she said.

The scheduled week-long protest is being held in conjunction with demonstrations at the Robarts School for the Deaf [5]in London, Ont., and the Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf [6]in Milton.

All three schools are overseen by Leonard and the Provincial Schools Branch.