Nails in tires, hate mail, death threats — public school board president faces continued abuse at transgender book meeting

WATERLOO REGION — Death threats were never part of the job description when Scott Piatkowski was chosen as president of the public school board.

Neither the hate messages, nor the attacks on Twitter, nor the voicemails left on his answering machine calling him a “pedophile” and a “healer”, telling him “I hope you have good security” because someone might try to shoot you. the head.

Last week, the chair of the Waterloo Region District School Board found a nail in the tire of one of the cars in his driveway. This was the fourth time since January that this had happened, and on one occasion there were multiple nails. It got to the point where his mechanic even commented, “It’s really weird that you’re back here with a flat tire.”

He doesn’t get into his car without checking all the tires and has asked his family members to do the same.

He filed an initial police report when the first death threats started coming in, and he kept police up to date with emails as the threats and intimidation continued. He is also in the process of installing security cameras at his home.

“I am someone who expects and welcomes criticism, and with the nature of some of the issues I face, I would be surprised if I didn’t receive criticism,” he said. “It’s not about that. It’s about actual threats to harm me, and what I believe to be a coordinated vandalism campaign.

” It’s not acceptable. No one signs up for this, and no one should.

Online hate is not uncommon in the world of elected officials, but things quickly escalated for Piatkowski after a January board meeting when he interrupted a teacher’s presentation who questioned the relevance of school library materials to transgender youth.

During the meeting, Piatkowski expressed concern that some of Carolyn Burjoski’s statements may violate Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

The council voted 5 to 4 not to let the teacher continue.

Burjoski is now suing the school board for $1.75 million in damages and said she was “ejected” from the Jan. 17 meeting “for criticizing the age appropriateness of sexual content in children’s books in elementary school libraries”.

Piatkowski said he couldn’t comment directly on the situation because it was still in dispute, but said his initial response from January still stands.

A week later, he opened the January 24 meeting with these remarks: “Although some administrators and some well-meaning members of the community may not really have seen the harm the delegate has caused with what she said, I can assure you it was real. It was clear where she was heading. If she had been allowed to continue; evil has perhaps become more evident to all. If that had been the case, perhaps my decision to stop presenting it might have seemed better to some who questioned it.

Since that decision, Piatkowski has faced continued abuse on various social media sites, as well as in messages sent to his email and phone.

It’s the kind of situation that’s starting to make some politicians think twice about running for office or entering politics in the first place, said Robert Williams, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Waterloo.

“It’s too easy to be vilified, and it’s done without much recourse to address misconceptions, if there are any,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are often a lot of misconceptions.”

While social media gives any user the opportunity to publicly express their opinions, he said, it also gives them a buffet of unverified information to form those opinions. It’s a dangerous combination, he says.

But there is also something else going on: a deep polarization around a number of social justice issues.

A board chair interrupting a presentation is not uncommon, Williams said, so the backlash this time begs the question of why the transgender issue is so polarizing.

Whether or not someone agrees with Piatkowski’s decision isn’t necessarily the issue, he said. Society is changing and some people cling when faced with change, especially when it goes against their long-held beliefs, he added.

“The bottom line is that the type of reactions from these people are unacceptable and cannot be seen as helping to resolve what is upsetting them,” he said.

When John Milloy was MPP for Kitchener Center from 2003 to 2014, social media attacks and targeted harassment online were still in their infancy. He has never received any death threats and said he never felt unsafe during his years in provincial politics.

Now director of Martin Luther University College’s Center for Public Ethics, Milloy said he would have to think twice about entering politics if he was 20 years younger and considering throwing his hat in the ring.

That’s not to say he came from a golden age, he said. He received his fair share of hate mail, angry voicemails and angry voters in his office. During his tenure as Minister of Community and Social Services, he had multiple clashes with activist groups – some protesting outside his office, others opting for sit-ins.

But while those situations may have been uncomfortable, he said, it never got to the point where he felt unsafe.

“The situation that’s going on with Scott is way beyond anything I’ve had to deal with,” he said. “Of course no one was ever shy about telling me what a terrible job I did or what a horrible person I was – and that’s not always easy – but I never felt physically threatened. .”

While many messages sent to Piatkowski have been anonymous, many others have not. A quick search shows that some of the attacks come from accounts by people who live and work locally in the area.

It can sometimes be sobering to know that some of these people are so close to home, Piatkowski said.

Members of the trans community can face this type of abuse every day, he said. It is also not uncommon for racialized politicians to face these kinds of attacks online daily.

That is why, after careful consideration, he declared that he had decided to stand for re-election in the October 24 school elections.

“These last eight months have shown me that these issues that I face are important and that the position that I take is important,” he said.

“I understand that some people may not agree with this position, and I have had many who have said so with respect. However, I don’t need to open my email and read that someone is out to kill me because of these beliefs.

He said he would let voters – not those who intend to bully him – decide whether he is fit for another term.

“Caving in to their threats would be letting them win, and I’m not ready to do that,” Piatkowski said.

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