The principal of the Hamilton high school where a student’s death led to a board-wide review of bullying was investigated for behaviour toward staff the union has characterized as harassment and bullying.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says its investigation of Marco Barzetti “substantiated” allegations from a staff member that were dealt with under the Ontario Human Rights Code and the board’s equity and inclusion policy.
The investigation was not connected to the death of Devan Selvey, who was fatally stabbed behind the Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School on Oct. 7, 2019.
But in a pair of letters from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) to the public school board, which were obtained by CBC, the union speaks to staff concerns and the effect Barzetti would have on the school in the wake of Selvey’s death if he continues in the role.
“Returning a manager that has been substantiated to be a bully and a harasser would negatively impact the school climate of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary — a school that is still reeling from the tragic death of a student who was murdered as a result of bullying,” reads a letter to superintendent of human resources Jamie Nunn dated March 26.
In a statement to CBC, Barzetti acknowledged the investigation and said he was directed by the board to take actions as a result of the findings, including participating in professional development training. He said he has also apologized to some staff.
Selvey’s death rocked the community and kick-started a conversation about bullying locally and across Canada. In the weeks that followed, the HWDSB voted unanimously to set up an independent panel to evaluate how it handles bullying prevention, intervention, reporting and responding.
While that process is ongoing, the board continues to employ a principal who was accused of being a bully at the very school where the review began.
A letter written Feb. 20 as part of a grievance process references a complaint “alleging egregious behaviour from Principal Marco Barzetti that included but was not limited to homophobic and racist comments, as well as threats,” raised by a teacher at the school.
When contacted by CBC News about the letter, the teacher named in it refused to comment.
But, in the follow up letter from March, the union says the board admitted in its investigation that Barzetti was “found culpable of wrongdoing.” It also says the OSSTF is “deeply troubled” by the fact the HWDSB has “evidence of substantiated workplace harassment and bullying,” from the principal.
Board says investigation was ‘thorough’
Barzetti, who was away from the school for several months following the stabbing, said in his statement that the board has completed its process.
“In the end, I took responsibility for my mistakes, and I’ve apologized to those I offended,” he wrote in an email to CBC following requests for comment.
“I’ve accepted the direction of the board, including participating in professional development to improve my management practices with staff.”
Shawn McKillop, a spokesperson for the HWDSB, also acknowledged the investigation took place, but said the board would not comment on specifics because it relates to a confidential personnel matter.
“We can confirm the investigation was thorough,” he wrote in an email to CBC.
McKillop said when concerns are brought forward they’re investigated by a third party to ensure the process is fair to everyone involved.
It’s not clear from the board statement if all the allegations against Brazetti were substantiated.
McKillop said that what was “substantiated” through the investigation was dealt with in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code, the board’s Equity and Inclusion Policy and its Staff Progressive Discipline Policy.
Sir Winston Churchill is a school that’s become synonymous with tragedy in Hamilton following Devan’s death.
A 14-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.
The final report being prepared by the Safe Schools Review Panel set up after the stabbing has been delayed by COVID-19. The HWDSB has also postponed its own third-party investigation into what happened, citing a civil lawsuit.
Staff would feel unsafe if principal returned: union
It’s unclear exactly how long Barzetti was away from the school.
A letter to families from superintendent Paul Denomme dated Dec. 10, 2019 mentions another administrator had been acting as principal, before adding Barzetti is still employed by the board and a “valued member of the Sir Winston Churchill community.”
“We are respecting his privacy at this time and wish him the best until his return,” it adds without explaining why he’s not there.
Another letter from Denomme announced the principal’s return on April 15, 2020, saying the board is “delighted” to have him back.
The superintendent’s tone contrasts sharply with that of the union.
In the letter from March the OSSTF states it’s “fearful” for safety of workers “given Mr. Barzetti’s threats of workplace harassment and violence” as well as the possibility of reprisals given the “power imbalance” if he’s returned as principal.
The union was seeking information about any corrective actions taken against Barzetti as a result of the investigation and assurances staff would be protected.
“To be clear, many of our members have indicated that they would not feel safe if Mr. Barzetti returned as the Principal of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary,” the letter adds.
But Barzetti is back, at least temporarily. Staff members say he’s already been at the school and is expected to be the lead administrator there until at least October, moving to Saltfleet District High School only after the one-year anniversary of Devan’s death.
Neither the school board nor Barzetti responded to questions about whether or not he’ll be switching to Saltfleet.
“We recognize this is a challenging time for the school and its community with the one-year anniversary since Devan Selvey’s passing approaching in October,” stated McKillop. “We remain committed to the safety and well-being of our staff and students.”
Despite that commitment, staff say they’re still worried.
CBC News spoke with five people who worked with Barzetti at various points in his career. They each described a pattern of sexist, racist and homophobic comments, both witnessed in-person and relayed to them by other staff members.
In the February letter the union also says it believes Barzetti’s behaviour is not an isolated issue, but forms a “pattern of vexatious conduct that puts all employees at risk.”
Local OSSTF president Daryl Jerome declined to answer questions about the investigation, saying the letters obtained by CBC were confidential.
“Without commenting on Sir Winston Churchill specifically, I need to emphasize that we do not comment on any issue that is confidential between the bargaining unit, our members, and our employer,” he wrote in an email.
Jerome noted he and the other union members working in the local office are technically still employed by the board.
“If/when unelected, we would go back to the classroom,” he explained.
“As such, we have always been instructed by our Provincial Office to not comment on issues that are confidential or that could hurt the Board brand or reputation, as we can still be terminated.”
Speaking generally, Jerome also said that in some cases the union and board agree to confidential settlements. He declined to comment further.
Staff members CBC spoke to said it was not uncommon for Barzetti to make offensive comments that left them feeling deeply uncomfortable, but unsure of how to respond.
“I’m baffled by how this person is still employed,” said one source, adding they felt as though they should speak up, but didn’t feel safe doing so because of the power imbalance.
“When it’s your boss you don’t know what to do,” the source explained.
‘The biggest bully in the building’
CBC has agreed not to identify the staff members who all expressed fear they would be fired by the board for speaking out.
Sources also described several attempts to raise concerns about overall safety at the school dating back years, but said those efforts were met with intimidation from the principal or were ignored.
The first attempt happened during a staff meeting in 2017, not long after Barzetti became principal at the school.
Multiple sources recalled a teacher standing up and asking Barzetti what he was going to do about the violence in the hallways.
They say the principal responded by raising his voice and saying if the teacher didn’t like how the school was being run there were transfer forms on his desk at the office and they could find somewhere else to work.
Reached for comment, the teacher in question said they remembered the incident, but declined to answer any questions about it.
Then, two weeks before Devan’s death, another teacher spoke up — this time questioning what was being done to stop people who weren’t students or staff from getting into the school and walking the halls.
Sources say the teacher suggested taking steps such as calling the police to stop the trespassing and trouble-making, but they were left feeling the request was largely ignored by the principal.
“We begged for help,” said one teacher CBC spoke with, adding the board’s focus on bullying after Devan’s death strikes them as ironic given Barzetti is still principal.
“He’s the biggest bully in the building.”
In response to CBC questions about staff concerns regarding student safety at Winston Churchill, the board said “violence is not commonplace in our schools” and that it’s “satisfied” there is no link between Devan’s death and any issues it has investigated.
Barzetti’s statement included a pledge to apply lessons from the training he underwent as a result of the investigation during the upcoming school year.
“I will use what I have learned to uphold my fundamental commitment to put students first, and to support the staff that teach and work with them,” he wrote.
Staff members CBC spoke with said the principal’s words do little to address their concerns, calling it “lip-service.”
“This wasn’t just a one-off. This behaviour is unacceptable and it shouldn’t be tolerated,” said one source.
Staff members also said they’re frustrated by the fact the board has repeatedly made public statements against bullying, racism and homophobia while continuing to employ a principal they say used offensive language.
“He should have been fired,” said another source, adding they’re still concerned.
“They’ve chosen to protect their bully. That’s the way I see it.”