Huricane Juan
Toronto Star
  • London school board failed in response to sexual assault, jury finds

    LONDON ONT.—A London, Ont., jury has found a school board failed in its response to the sexual assault of a female student with a developmental disability in a high school washroom five years ago.

    The jury’s December decision, recently upheld by a judge, found London’s Thames Valley District School Board, which oversees the high school where the assault took place, fell short after the 2009 incident. They awarded the family $156,000 for damages suffered.

    The civil case focused on how a school ought to respond to a sexual assault.

    “The feeling I got from the school is they wanted to sweep it under the carpet,” the woman’s mother told the Star in an interview.

    It also brought up several issues around how schools should be supervising and protecting students, particularly when vulnerable groups are involved. The male student in the case is diagnosed with a disability that typically involves misreading social cues and the female functions at a level of a young child. They were in a class for students with special needs.

    The jury did not find fault on the school board’s behalf before the incident.

    What follows is an account taken from court transcripts and exhibits, as well as interviews with the Star. Because of a court-ordered ban on publishing information that would identify the students involved, as well as this newspaper’s policy of not identifying sexual assault victims without their consent, the Star is not naming the high school or the developmental disabilities of the students. The female student will be called Ashley, her mother Donna and the male student Andrew.

    David Miller, the school board’s lawyer, told the Star in January he could not comment because the case was still before the courts. “We do, however, want to underscore that student safety is always the board’s first priority,” he said in an email.

    The school’s current principal, the head of the school’s developmental program and their former teacher also declined to comment.

    Surveillancefootage from the school’s hallway on June 22, 2009, shows the students, both 20 at the time, were alone in the washroom for 14 minutes.

    Ashley had been walking from her classroom to the school bus at the end of the day when Andrew followed her into the girl’s washroom.

    During a videotaped interview at the police station the following day, which would later be shown to the jury, Ashley told a detective that Andrew came into a bathroom stall with her. She said she tried to leave but he grabbed her hands and pulled her back, then took her shorts down.

    “He put his penis into my body,” she says, shyly, head down.

    “I told him to stop,” she later tells the detective.

    During his videotaped interview Andrew confirmed that Ashley did tell him to stop, though he appeared to think that at least initially she was a willing participant. “Like, I didn’t force her or anything,” he says earnestly.

    No criminal charges were laid. Ashley’s mother said she didn’t want him charged because Andrew, like her daughter, has a developmental disability.

    In the subsequent civil case, launched against the school board by Ashley’s family, the board argued at the outset that the sexual activity was “entirely consensual,” according to court documents. Ashley “fell into the category” of a higher functioning student in terms of her thought processing and abilities and, from a social perspective, was “well aware of what she was doing,” the school board’s documents say.

    By the end of the trial the board conceded an assault had occurred.

    An independent psychologist who evaluated Ashley testified that she functions at the level of a 5- to 6-year-old child, even though her sociability may make her seem more capable. Since she doesn’t understand the benefits or risks of sexual activity, she likely couldn’t consent to it, the psychologist concluded, according to a summary of her testimony.

    Ashley’s mother, Donna, a longtime government worker, raised her daughter and two younger children as a single parent.

    Those who know Ashley well talk of a kind person who aims to please others. At trial, the family’s lawyer emphasized an anecdote from the psychologist, who noted that Ashley forced herself to drink a cup of tea during a session rather than say she didn’t like it.

    At a recent court date, Ashley sat quietly in the courtroom gallery, holding her mother’s hand. Outside court, she talked to the Star at length about her love of all things musical — the High School Musical movies, the TV show Glee and Jersey Boys.

    In the hours after the assault, Ashley went to the hospital for a rape kit. She had blood taken to test for sexually transmitted diseases and was given medications that made her sick. What’s unclear from the rape kit and police interviews with both students is whether there was any penetration.

    In the days and weeks that followed, Ashley’s sunny personality changed, her family says. She had nightmares, was moody and couldn’t drive by the school without getting upset.

    Before the assault, “life was rosy,” but after “it wasn’t rosy anymore,” Ashley’s grandmother testified at the trial, according to a summary of her testimony. “There was something bothering her under the surface,” her mother told the Star.

    Donna said she herself felt anxious, helpless and depressed and has had to take two stress leaves from work.

    “It made me question other situations she’s been in,” Donna said.

    “First (Ashley)was assaulted and then she was ignored,” said the family’s lawyer, Naomi Loewith, during her closing arguments in December.

    Loewith, a Toronto-based lawyer with Lenczner Slaght who argued the case with colleague Ian MacLeod pro bono, said Ashley should never have been allowed to walk to the bus unsupervised.

    While her mother knew her daughter occasionally ran errands in the school and travelled independently to her own co-op placement on the school grounds, she said she did not know Ashley was walking to the bus loading area on her own and would have objected to it, court heard.

    “The people with the legal and moral obligation to take care of (Ashley) should have given her 45 seconds of shadowing until she got onto the school bus,” Loewith said in her closing arguments.

    Loewith also said Andrew wasn’t a bad person but appeared to be “a good person with a complex past and with high needs.”

    Court heard child services had, years earlier, taken Andrew into its care after allegations of abuse and placed him with his grandparents. He previously tried to kiss a girl at the school who did not have a disability.

    Miller, the lawyer representing the school board, argued the walk to the bus was something the class teachers had worked toward in steps, first supervising the students then allowing them to go independently. He added Ashley’s mother had wanted her daughter to be more independent and that the teachers had no indication that allowing Andrew to walk to the bus with the other students would result in harm.

    “That is how a careful and prudent parent deals with independence issues,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s risk free. Nothing is risk free in this world.”

    The jury, asked by the judge to consider what a “prudent and careful parent would do in a similar situation,” found no fault before the incident.

    In June of 2009, Ashley had been at the high school for several years. It was her first year in its co-op program, which is intended to transition students from the school to the community.

    After a teaching assistant found the pair in the washroom, Ashley called her mom on her cellphone. She’d been “touched,” she said, apologetic.

    Donna rushed from work, where she met with school staff, who had already placed a call to police, she said.

    During her testimony, Donna said that in the days after the assault, Ashley’s teacher told her a decision had been made to keep what happened “amongst themselves” — meaning between the few staff members who knew about it.

    Donna also said she asked the school to reconsider letting the students walk to the bus independently and was told the process would not change.

    Three days after the incident, on June 25, 2009, Ashley’s teacher dropped the contents of her daughter’s locker off at her home and the family didn’t hear from anyone at the school for the rest of the summer, Donna said.

    “I feel failed by the system,” Donna said in an interview.

    During the trial Loewith argued the school did not follow its own policies.

    No one offered to help Ashley get counselling, as the school’s policy requires. To the family’s knowledge, there was no investigation to see if there had been any other incidents involving Andrew, who went on to graduate days later. Because of the vulnerabilities of some of the students in the program, Donna wondered whether they would be able to speak up if something happened.

    No one at the school filled out a violent incident report, a report sent to the school board that should have described the incident. The board uses these reports to develop policies and improvement plans.

    If more had been done after the fact, Loewith argued, perhaps the family would have felt more comfortable sending Ashley back to school for what was supposed to be her final year.

    “Is this how we expect our school boards to treat victims of sexual assault?” Loewith asked during her closing arguments.

    She went on to say that by failing to discuss the event with other staff members it prevented them from learning from the situation.

    School board lawyer Miller admitted during the trial that the violent incident form should have been completed but added that Ashley’s family wasn’t harmed because of that. And while the school didn’t offer counselling, he said Ashley’s mother told her teacher the hospital had arranged for some. Miller also raised the “huge” privacy concerns inherent in spreading personal information throughout the school and beyond.

    The Thames Valley District School Board did not respond to specific questions about what may have happened differently if the violent incident form had been filled out, or whether any policies or procedures were changed after Ashley’s assault.

    In a February email, Miller said the board’s safety policy “ensures a consistent, co-ordinated approach to handling incidents” that occur in its schools.

    In their December judgment, the jury found the school board “failed to meet the standard of care” after the assault by not following policies on record keeping and ensuring steps are taken to ensure serious incidents are not repeated.

    In January, in a rare move, the board asked the judge to disregard the verdict, arguing the jurors had misunderstood and didn’t comply with instructions. Justice Duncan Grace of the London Superior Court disagreed.

    “To my mind . . . the jury seems to have concluded that nothing was done to prevent recurrence of a sexual assault or make the school safer and hence (Ashley) and some members of her family suffered damage,” he said. “I do not think it is for me to usurp the jury’s role.”

    Instead of returning to school, Ashley attended programs at Community Living London, an agency that works with people with disabilities. She has enjoyed the baking and karaoke classes she’s taken. She also volunteers at a community centre her family has been going to for a decade, helping to look after children and care for equipment. (Donna says she feels comfortable knowing the people there keep on eye on her at all times).

    Today Ashley is more her happy-go-lucky self, her family says.

    Loewith, the lawyer, said she felt it was important to try the case in a public courtroom. Otherwise, just a handful of people would have ever known what happened to Ashley that day.

    “We hope the board will take actions to ensure victims are supported and heard,” she said.

    Adds Donna: “I certainly don’t want something like this to happen to anyone else.”

  • Patrick Brown sells more than 40,000 Ontario PC memberships

    Progressive Conservatives are coping with a radically altered political landscape after a little-known federal backbencher has emerged as the front-runner for the party’s leadership.

    Barrie MP Patrick Brown, 36, the only candidate without a seat at Queen’s Park, appears to have sold upward of 40,000 of the more than 70,000 PC memberships by Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.

    Only those who bought a $10 membership before the cut-off can cast a preferential ballot in the one-member, one-vote election in May.

    Brown’s sales prowess was a jolt to the candidacy of MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), the party establishment’s choice with the backing of 18 of the 28-member PC caucus.

    Elliott, 59, is refusing to release her tally until Conservative officials process the membership forms to eliminate duplicate or questionable submissions.

    But sources told the Star her total is closer to 26,000 with third-place candidate Monte McNaughton, 37, the MPP for Lambton—Essex—Kent, at around 4,400.

    “She’s not as far behind as it seems, but she’s definitely behind since she sold fewer memberships,” a senior Tory said Sunday, noting Elliott’s backers are more likely to actually vote because they are the party faithful.

    “It’s definitely an insurgency,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal PC machinations, said of Brown’s stunning campaign.

    Taking a page from the federal Conservatives’ playbook, he has made inroads to Ontario’s many cultural communities, signing up thousands of new Canadians and injecting fresh blood to the PC Party, even attracting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky to the fold.

    But it remains to be seen whether these new Tories will show up to vote in May — and if Brown’s sharp criticism of previous leader Tim Hudak will hurt him with party stalwarts.

    A backbench MP since 2006, he has been crusading against the provincial Tories’ “same old, same old” approach to campaigns that have seen them lose four straight elections to the Liberals.

    Brown, backed by just three sitting Tory MPPs, said the party, which has governed Ontario for 50 of the past 75 years, needs to face the “uncomfortable truth” that drastic change is needed.

    “History is on his side,” said another senior Conservative, pointing out that in the past four PC leadership contests — in 1990, 2002, 2004 and 2009 — the winning candidate sold the most memberships.

    On Twitter, a triumphant Brown emphasized “growth is the key to our future success.”

    The success of the unmarried, bilingual lawyer also appeared to boost the spirits of the governing Liberals, who privately admit to being more concerned about Premier Kathleen Wynne facing off against Elliott, a unilingual lawyer and the widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty.

    Liberals were crowing on social media that a Brown-led party would make it easier for Wynne to be re-elected in 2018.

    A two-time former PC candidate, Ottawa’s Randall Denley, agreed with that assessment.

    “Right-wing, anti-abortion candidate @brownbarrie political suicide in general election. Wake up #PCPO,” tweeted Denley.

    “Libs would have a field day demonizing this guy. Next PC leader has to appeal beyond party base. Don’t saddle yourself with another unelectable leader,” he wrote.

    Elliott’s campaign, meanwhile, was disputing “highly questionable claims” they sold only 13,000 memberships.

    “These claims are so erroneous that it would be unfair to all Progressive Conservative members to allow them to spread unchecked. Let us set the record straight. While the final tally is still being processed, that number does not even reflect half of the memberships we have sold,” said Elliott spokesman Mike Ras.

    “These sales are on top of the strong base of support that Christine Elliott enjoys among existing members as well as the overwhelming support of members recruited by (former leadership candidates) Vic Fedeli and Lisa MacLeod before they withdrew from the race,” said Ras.

    “Our campaign has led this race from the beginning — in volunteers, fundraising, endorsements and, most importantly, in supporters across all of Ontario.”

    While most PC insiders expect a first-ballot winner at the party’s May 9 convention in Toronto, it is possible that third-place candidate McNaughton, who is appealing to social conservatives, could end up being the kingmaker or queenmaker.

  • Mommy, Orphan Black dominate Canadian Screen Awards

    Xavier Dolan’s drama Mommy swept the Canadian Screen Awards Sunday night with nine wins, including Best Motion Picture, best director for Dolan and three acting categories.

    History-fantasy Pompeii dominated the technical awards, picking up five, including art direction, costume design and visual effects.

    On the TV side, Orphan Black won Best Dramatic Series and Best Actress for star Tatiana Maslany — both wins a repeat of last year — while cancelled series Call Me Fitz picked up the Best Comedy Series prize and Joanna Cassidy won Best Actress in comedic role.

    “I’m so lucky to have this job; I feel so lucky,” said Regina native Maslany, thanking her family, including her “oma and opa.”

    In all, Orphan Black won 10 CSAs, the bulk of which were handed out at earlier ceremonies.

    Don McKellar won Best Performance for an Actor in a Comedic Role for Sensitive Skin.

    Maps to the Stars was nominated for 11 CSA but won just two. Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore, who was a CSA nominee for the role that also won Best Actress at Cannes, wasn’t among them. Her co-star, John Cusack, earned Best Supporting Actor though he wasn’t in attendance.

    Anne Dorval won the CSA for Best Actress in a film for her portrayal of Diane in Mommy, playing a widowed mother struggling to raise her emotionally tormented, often-violent son.

    “Mon dieu,” said a clearly emotional Dorval. Speaking in English and French, she thanked “Xavier (Dolan) my friend” and also her mother “for loving me so much and for teaching me to be myself.”

    She said later in the press room that she’s made four films with Dolan, whom she met when the filmmaker was just 15.

    Mommy dominated the film acting prizes with Antoine-Olivier Pilon winning Best Actor in a leading role as troubled teen Steve, and Suzanne Clement winning Best Actress in a supporting role as their neighbour Kyla.

    Clement praised “demanding” Dolan as filmmaker who “wants everybody to be involved” in the making of his films.

    Jared Keeso, who won Best Actor in a dramatic series for police drama 19-2, gave one of the evening’s most heartfelt speeches with thanks for his family, and a shout-out to the “good folks” of his hometown of Listowel, Ont., where they’ve run a sawmill business for five generations.

    Twenty-five awards were presented in a pre-show ceremony and 18 were handed out during a live telecast hosted by Andrea Martin at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

    Lisa LaFlamme repeated last year’s CSA win for Best News Anchor for CTV National News, Best Reality Series went to The Amazing Race Canada and Vikings won Best International Drama.

    Oscar nominee Me and My Moulton was named best animated short while Best Original Digital Program went to Space Riders: Division Earth, whose producers were clearly thrilled to be on the main awards telecast.

    Prior to the awards telecast, Moore was on the red carpet outside the Four Seasons.

    “I love Toronto. I’ve been coming to Toronto to work since 1986, a really long time, so I feel I’m practically Canadian,” said Moore with a wide smile as she paused on the red carpet for a few words with the Star before the Canadian Screen Awards Sunday evening.

    Moore said she was delighted to be in Toronto to support Maps to the Stars, in which she played neurotic actress Havana Segrand, whom she described as “monstrous and childlike at the same time.”

    “It was such a great opportunity to work with Canadian auteur David Cronenberg,” she added.

Arts & Letters
Sunday, 12 August 2007