Sixteen year-old Malvern student Georgia Koumantaros had already thanked the committee and stepped away from the mic on Oct. 22 when Sam Sotiropoulos, the school trustee she had just accused of making homophobic and transphobic remarks on Twitter, added an unexpected comment.
“I almost figure she was doing more than expressing her own opinion,” said Sotiropoulos, then the Toronto Public School Board trustee for Scarborough-Agincourt, who joined the meeting by telephone. “Perhaps it was the opinion of the Teachers Federation?”
“I find it quite offensive that you think I cannot form my own opinion,” she replied. “I honestly think that is the most belittling, degrading thing you can do.”
At that point, several trustees and spectators broke into applause, including the dozen students from Malvern Collegiate’s Students Against Sexual Stereotypes (MSASS) and Danforth Collegiate’s Gay-Straight Alliance who made their way to the North York TDSB office after school to support Koumantaros and deliver a petition with 250 student signatures from both schools that asked the board to hold Sotiropoulos accountable.
On election day, Sotiropoulos lost his seat to Manna Wong, who has promised to bring an inclusive environment to the TDSB.
Back in August, Sotiropoulos wrote on Twitter that, “Until I see scientific proof that transgenderism exists and is not simply a mental illness, I reserve the right not to believe in it.” In July, he linked to a story calling Toronto’s Pride parade a “freak show.”
Koumantaros told the trustees that under board policy, a student making similar remarks would have to serve detention, write an essay on the issue, or be suspended.
“Unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Sam Sotiropoulos there was never an apology, and the behaviour never really improved,” she said.
Sotiropoulos responded by asking exactly what rules he had violated. When Koumantaros listed the Accepting Schools Act and TDSB guidelines for accommodating transgendered staff and students, he asked for the “exact subsections.”
Sotiropoulos referred to a Sept. 2 letter by TDSB lawyer Tony Brown, who concluded that Sotiropoulos’ Twitter remarks are his personal opinion. Brown also noted that unlike teachers, who are held to be role models even outside class, “politicians have tremendous latitude to express ideas, even offensive views.”
Koumantaros pointed out that on Twitter, Sotiropoulos used the name @TrusteeSam, and that he hashtagged his remarks with #TDSB (on Twitter, “hashtags” work like keywords).
“I don’t think you should be hashtagging the TDSB and using your TDSB Twitter account when you are saying these opinions,” she said.
Outside the committee room, fellow Malvern student and MSASS member Sydney Leicht said she too believes that Sotiropoulos’ views reflect on the school board as a whole.
“If you’re in middle school and you think, ‘Wow, I might be trans’ or ‘I might be gay,’ and you see that, you’re like, ‘Am I mentally ill?’” said Leicht. “If you don’t know that there are people who will support you, and that’s one of the first things you see – that would be so terrible.”
A TDSB secretary had asked the Malvern and Danforth students to wait until a meeting after Monday’s election to make their petition, since they weren’t listed on the committee agenda. But local trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher led a vote to allow the petition despite the agenda, noting it’s important for them to hear directly from students on such issues.