Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/18)
Personal Injury

Private schools more proactive in approach to sex abuse allegations

Private schools facing historical allegations of sexual misconduct by former teachers have begun taking a noticeably more proactive approach to potential scandals, Toronto civil sexual abuse lawyer Elizabeth Grace tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The Globe and Mail recently reported on a Toronto private school urging alumni to come forward with concerns following the arrest of one of its former teachers in Nepal on suspected child sex offences. The accused teacher, who is also a member of the Order of Canada for his humanitarian work, has denied any wrongdoing, according to the newspaper.

Grace, a partner with Lerners LLP, was involved in a previous lawsuit brought by a former student against the same school in the early 2000s after allegations emerged against a different individual criminally convicted of numerous counts of indecent assault relating to his time as a teacher and dorm master in the 1970s.

In addition, she has acted in more recent cases involving another private Ontario school in relation to alleged sexual misconduct by two former staff members in the 1970s – the school’s chaplain and a music teacher.

“Fast forward 15 years and the change in approach by these schools is quite drastic. You can see they’re trying to get ahead of the storm by reaching out to alumni and staff,” Grace says. “I think that’s a good thing and certainly better than the alternative. Of course, it’s also about managing their image and preserving their reputations.”

However, she says the schools’ outreach needs to be backed up by support for affected former students.

“These outreach campaigns can be a shock for people who were not expecting to be contacted and to hear about abuse that they themselves may have kept secret for a long time,” Grace says. “I’ve seen the hurt and damage that can surface at these times, so it’s essential that mental health services like counselling and therapy be made available at the same time.”

Despite welcoming the more proactive and empathetic approach of these schools, Grace has a warning for former students who answer the call for information.

“You shouldn’t be under any illusion that the gloves won’t come off if you do decide you want to pursue compensation,” she says. “Be cautious about the extent to which you help the school and engage in its internal review, and don’t conflate doing so with the formal legal process that will be necessary to claim compensation if you were harmed.”  

Grace believes court decisions, advances in mental health and increased societal awareness of the harms caused by sexual assault have helped to change attitudes towards sexual abuse in recent years and informed schools' current approaches to the subject.

“The best solution is to implement strong measures that prevent it from happening in the first place, and institutions like schools have come a long way in that regard,” she says. “But for someone who has already been abused, the sooner you can get them support and help them understand they are not to blame, the better the outcome will be. Having a process that encourages early disclosure and support is important.”

Where historical sexual abuse of students by staff is concerned, Grace says the best thing a school can do is to act “quickly and humanely” to support its former students.

According to the Globe, the Toronto school’s principal and chair of its board of governors sent a joint letter to alumni addressing the arrest of its former teacher, noting he had had no involvement with the school since his departure in 2002.   

“Should any information come forward regarding inappropriate behaviour, [the school] will, as we have in the past, undertake a thorough investigation into those allegations,” the school said in a statement to the Globe.

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