Battling a public relations crisis in the wake of sexual assault charges laid against students, St. Michael’s College School has tapped one of Canada’s leading experts in criminal law procedure to lead a four-member committee tasked with reviewing the culture at the school.
The SMCS Respect and Culture Review Committee begins work “immediately” in the wake of six criminal charges against St. Michael’s students involved in hazing and bullying incidents that escalated to include sexual assault, the school said in announcing the committee Dec. 13.
Mark J. Sandler, a Law Society of Ontario bencher, former Osgoode Hall professor and recipient of the G. Arthur Martin Criminal Justice Medal, will work with former deputy minister of education of Ontario and former director of education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board Bruce Rodrigues, children and family law expert Priti Sachdeva, and York University professor of psychology Debra Pepler, an expert in aggression, bullying and victimization among children and adolescents.
Sandler has experience running and contributing to government inquiries into the wrongful convictions of Stephen Truscott and Guy Paul Morin, the Goudge Inquiry into pediatric forensic pathology at the Hospital for Sick Children and the sweeping Robins Review of sexual misconduct by teachers.
The committee is expected to produce a final report in the summer of 2019. None of the committee members have ties to St. Michael’s College School. The inquiry will be financed entirely by the school. None of the money for the committee’s work will come out of tuition fees, said St. Michael’s College School spokesperson Michael De Pellegrin.
“The committee has not been handcuffed by a firm budget,” said De Pellegrin in an e-mail. “The committee realizes the school is a not-for-profit and has the experience to work efficiently.”
Interim president of St. Michael’s, Rev. Andrew Leung also released a statement to parents announcing that the junior and varsity football seasons for 2019-20 and the 2018-19 basketball seasons are cancelled.
“This was an incredibly hard decision, but necessary to show how serious we are about change,” said Leung, a former parish priest in the Edmonton Archdiocese who was appointed as interim president of St. Michael’s in late November.
Speaking with reporters, Leung also said more students have come forward in the aftermath of the criminal charges and police confirmed there are two more incidents being investigated, bringing the total to eight.
Leung also announced an expanded program in partnership with the White Ribbon organization that campaigns against sexual violence to teach “healthy masculinities, gender norms, consent, responsible digital citizenship and appropriate bystander behaviour.”
“Every one of our 1,060 students will have soon completed mandatory themed workshops on building awareness and respect, coping and resilience,” Leung said.
“Every one of our decisions has been based on one guiding principle: the safety and well-being of our students,” Leung told parents.
With the police investigation into a series of November incidents ongoing, the Respect and Culture Review Committee will steer clear of investigating specific incidents or individuals, but rather “examine the schools traditions, social and cultural practices, policies, procedures and compliance,” said a Dec. 13 release from the school and the Basilian Fathers.
The school promises to share the results of its inquiry with others in the education community and the public “subject to redactions to protect required confidentiality.”
The school first announced it would commission a “comprehensive review” on Nov. 18, as reporters and camera crews were camped out just off school property and the city was abuzz with news of brutal and sexual behaviour in the prestigious boys’ school. The committee was originally to be announced on Nov. 28.
“This review is our board’s highest priority, reflecting our commitment to turn the pain of recent events into an opportunity for learning, healing and long-term change,” said St. Michael’s board chairman Michael Forsayeth in a release.
St. Michael’s College School staff became aware of an out-of-control hazing incident the morning of Monday, Nov. 12 through a cellphone video, which police sources say involved members of the basketball team bullying a student in the washroom and soaking him with water. Staff sought police advice and were told that if a student believes he was assaulted he should report it to police.
That evening a video of a second incident involving members of the football team holding down a team member and sexually assaulting him with a broom handle was obtained by school staff.
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the school began an investigation and expelled four students.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, Toronto Police began receiving media enquiries about a video of an alleged sexual assault circulating on social media. An officer was dispatched to the school.
School principal Greg Reeves handed over the video. Police told media the video meets the definition of child pornography and students should neither have the video on their phones nor circulate it.
On Thursday, Nov. 15, police contradicted an e-mail school staff sent out on Wednesday claiming the administration had notified police of both incidents on Monday. The school also learned of a third incident, also a sexual assault, captured on video.
On Friday, Nov. 16, the school held two separate information sessions for parents.
In media interviews on Sunday, Nov. 18, Reeves claimed he did not report the alleged sexual assault to police on Monday because the victim had not yet informed his parents about the incident.
On Nov. 19, Police announced they arrested six teens, 14 and 15-year-old boys, whose identities are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
Three days later, Reeves and school president Rev. Jefferson Thompson both resigned to allow St. Michael’s to move “forward without distractions and allow it to focus on healing and change after the horrific events.”
Leung, working then in Edmonton, was announced as Thompson’s interim replacement, with vice principals Emile John and David Lee stepping in for Reeves.