Canada

DEATH OF A CHOIRBOY

JOHN NICOL February 2 1998
Canada

DEATH OF A CHOIRBOY

JOHN NICOL February 2 1998

DEATH OF A CHOIRBOY

Canada

A student's suicide shakes a renowned Toronto school

JOHN NICOL

JANE O’HARA

Kenneth AuYeung, a 17-year-old student at Saint Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, often told his friends: “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.” He was a straight-A student with an agile mind and a passion for computers—the kind of kid who volunteered at a local convalescent hospital in his spare time and shovelled the snow when his parents asked him to. As for his future,

AuYeung had a career path mapped out: when he graduated from high school, he intended to study computer or engineering sciences. He was a mother’s dream, a first-born child who knew where he was going and how he was going to get there.

But on Dec. 11, something went terribly wrong. Early that afternoon, with a light snow falling, AuYeung travelled the 3.3 km from his Bond Street school in downtown Toronto to the Bloor Street viaduct, which spans the city’s cavernous Don Valley. Witnesses saw him walking east on the bridge. Then, without breaking stride, he put his two hands on top of the stone railing and hurtled over it, as though hopping a fence. He died instantly upon hitting the ground. And his death has left the prestigious choir school facing a scandal that involves rumors of sexual impropriety, a questionable police interrogation and stonewalling by school authorities—as angry parents demand answers.

On the morning of Dec. 11, AuYeung and five other boys were called to the office to be questioned by Const. Christopher Downer, an off-duty policeman and a former choir-school boy who for years had served as something between friendly neighborhood police officer and the school’s private bouncer. Downer had been called by a teacher to find out which of the students on the yearbook committee had embarrassingly altered a line of text in the yearbook, which the day before had arrived from the printers. The alteration—meant as a prank—raised the spectre of sexual impropriety at the school.

Downer, 36, a 17-year veteran of the Toronto police force, began the 10-minute interview by giving the boys two choices. He said they could admit to changing the yearbook as a prank—or if no one owned up they could face the possibility of criminal charges. Given that stark choice, AuYeung and another student both confessed to changing the text. AuYeung told Downer he meant to change it

back, but was on holidays with his family when the final editing was done. After that confession, principal John Ryall told the two boys to go to their rehearsal for the choir’s annual Christmas concert at Massey Hall and report back to him later that afternoon.

Some time around noon, a devastated AuYeung put on his dark winter coat and decided to skip the rehearsal. Instead, he left the school, turned north on Bond Street and went to the Bloor viaduct. According to police, he left a suicide note that simply read: “Sorry for everything.” What part did the policeman’s interview play in his death? “Everyone’s asking that,” said Mark Angelo, the president of the student council. “It’s just speculation—but it might have been the straw that broke him.”

Three days later, AuYeung’s choir-school classmates, in their famous maroon uniforms, sang at his funeral mass. Some held back tears. Others, in memory of him, wore purple ribbons they had made themselves from material they bought. Au Yeung’s mother had already written a four-page letter that eloquently described the beautiful son she had loSaint It pointedly began: “The top question on the mind of everyone who is gathered here must be, Why did Kenneth kill himself?’ ”

That question has deeply shaken Saint Michael’s, a famed Catholic institution that opened in 1937 as a private boys school dedicated to the study of Catholicism’s sacred music. One former student described the institution, which is now publicly and privately funded, as a tightly knit “hothouse environment that oper-

ated by its own set of rules.” There is intense pressure on the students, who come to the school after successfully completing musical auditions—held annually throughout Toronto’s Catholic elementary schools. As well as shouldering a heavy load of regular high-school courses, students also have a heavy curriculum of musical studies. For tuition of close to $2,000 a year, they learn piano, organ harmony, theory and some of the most difficult choral works in the Western repertoire.

The boys of Saint Michael’s are known internationally, and the school has produced many famous tenors, including Les Misérables star Michael Burgess and Toronto recording star John McDermott, who last year sang for U.S. President Bill Clinton at the White House. Over the years, the choir has performed for popes an^ prime ministers, and helped marry and bury most of Toronto’s Catholic Establishment. Brandon Bayer, classical marketing manager for EMI Canada, says Saint Michael’s has one of the best choirs in Toronto, but the real success of the school can be measured by “the number of alumni in prominent positions in the music world. These kids come out with a musical education with real-world skills.” Adds Burgess, who began performing with the choir school at age 10: “Whether or not I made my living in music, my time at the school has enriched my life.”

There may be soaring majesty in the music and the Gothic spires of the cathedrals where the choir has performed. But the mysterious death of Kenneth AuYeung has brought Saint Michael’s firmly down to earth. Sources say the Toronto police department’s internal affairs division, which reports to Chief David Boothby, began looking into the case in mid-January, although a spokesman for internal affairs would not confirm it. The Toronto coroner’s office, which rarely holds inquests on jumper suicides for fear of encouraging copycats, has geared up its investigation. And Toronto’s Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic, who was recently elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II, says he asked for and received a report on the death.

Last week, Ambrozic, whose home cathedral, Saint Michael’s, adjoins the choir school, told Maclean’s: “I’m definitely looking at it, except I don’t want to talk about it. It’s a terrible tragedy. I have a report on it [from the musical director]. It’s a private report—it’s for me. Let’s put it this way: I’m satisfied that the school has done just about everything that could be done.” Two days later, Ambrozic’s spokeswoman called back and said that the newly mitred cardinal had delved further and discovered the veiled sexual allegation in the yearbook. The tampered text suggested that a choir-school staff member was also “head equipment manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs.” It was a flippant reference to the sexual scandal that rocked Toronto’s hockey shrine two years ago when victim Martin Kruze came forward and blew the whistle on a ring of pedophiles preying on young hockey fans. In October, Kruze killed himself by jumping off the Bloor viaduct. AuYeung jumped from almost the exact same spot.

After learning this new information, Ambrozic said he was pleased the authorities were investigating. “If there’s even a whiff of indiscretion you have to check,” said Susan Scorsoni, on behalf of the archbishop. Ambrozic’s words will be music to the ears of parents who, for the past six weeks, have been trying to cut through the fog of fear and mystery shrouding Au Yeung’s suicide. Since his death, rumors have run rampant through the school about what went on. “It had the air of a scandal,” said one student. “But everything at our school is a big scandal. If you’re late three times, it’s a scandal.” Of particular concern to the parents was the presence of the off-duty policeman, Const. Downer from 12 Division—nowhere near the school—who interrogated the students without their parents’ consent or presence, against board policy.

Downer, who still regularly sings with the choir school, told

Maclean’s last week that he was phoned on Dec. 10 by a longtime Saint Michael’s teacher, Louise Kane. Earlier that day, the six boys had been called out of choir rehearsal and summoned to principal Ryall’s office after staff noticed the yearbook message had been tampered with. The school called Downer instead of a uniformed police officer because they wanted to keep the incident, in Downer’s words, “under wraps.” And it was not the first occasion he had been called in. Four years ago, money had gone missing from the school and he was sent in to find the thieves. He succeeded.

This time, his mission was to find who changed the text in the yearbook. Downer says that during his interview with the students, he did not yell. “I said, ‘Someone’s been fooling around—it’s time to cough up to it and I’ll hand you over to your principal. Or there will be a criminal investigation. If it was a prank, just say so.’ ” After the

students admitted responsibility, Downer says he made it clear to them that no charges would be laid. Does he feel guilty? “Not in the least,” he said, adding that he thought AuYeung probably committed suicide “out of shame. I think he was troubled and depressed.”

Some critics, though, question Downer’s role. Toronto criminal lawyer Frank Addario says the interrogation was highly irregular. “It’s wrong for the police to use their office to investigate when they’re not acting in an official capacity,” he noted. “That gives them the authority but not the accountability.” Added Dr. Ty Turner, chief psychiatrist at Doctors Hospital in Toronto: “I don’t want to necessarily criticize, but authorities who use this approach would need to be mindful of the effect on vulnerable individuals, and the potential adverse side-effects.”

Saint Michael’s may have overreacted by calling in an off-duty officer for such a trivial matter— but allegations of sexual im| propriety in the schools has be-

0 come a hot-button issue for the

1 public. In fact, Downer’s involvei ment was not the only attempt to S keep a lid on the brewing scandal, s After news of the suicide reached

the school, a media adviser was called in for damage control. “We wanted to keep The Toronto Sun from getting at it,” said teacher Kane. The next night, despite some pressure to cancel, the school put on a brave face, deciding that the choir should perform in the first of three scheduled performances at Massey Hall. (The concerts have been a fixture on Toronto’s Christmas calendar since 1939.) ’There was a mixed reaction to doing it,” said one student. “Should we not go on—or should we do it for Kenneth?”

Since the suicide occurred, AuYeung’s parents have tried to turn the page and get on with their lives. Indeed, they feel there may have been factors other than the interrogation that triggered their son’s death. In her funeral letter, Kenneth’s mother wrote that when the yearbook alteration was discovered on Dec. 10, Kenneth came home worried “his reputation would be ruined” and that he might not be accepted to university. But many other choir-school parents have been waging an unflinching crusade to find out what happened. On two occasions, they have banded together and packed parent council meetings, hoping for some explanations from officials. Both times they were told by Michael O’Flanagan, the superintendent for the Metropolitan Separate School Board, that the authorities were handling the matter and reports would be made public in due time.

During the first meeting—on Dec. 17, six days after the suicide—parents crowded into the school cafeteria. Instead of answers, they were given a seminar on suicide counselling and bereavement. They listened patiently—but eventually one father with two sons in the school rose and started directing uncomfortable questions at O’Flanagan. According to sources at the meeting, the father wanted to know who was responsible for the tragedy and said the parents had a right to the information.

At that same session, another parent, Paul Lawrence, submitted a carefully constructed four-page “Proposal for Action” suggesting that the parents conduct their own investigation.

Among the issues:

“Why was the prank done? What undercurrents exist such that the students are motivated to strike out in words this way.” Lawrence’s statement also questioned the heavy-handed police involvement and asked why the parents of AuYeung and the other boys were neither notified nor present at the interrogation.

The parents went home that night with no clearer understanding of what had occurred. Lawrence’s proposal, meanwhile, went nowhere. Said Michael Flanagan, a former separate school board trustee who attended the meeting: “If there is any possibility that the police interview was a part of the cause for the suicide, then there’s something drastically wrong with the system. Adults have protection in interviews by police. Did those students have any rights of protection?”

On Jan. 18, a full five weeks after the suicide, choir-school parents launched another attempt to get to the bottom of what happened. At 2 p.m., they began streaming into the high-school auditorium, filling it to capacity. Again, superintendent O’Flanagan was there, this time accompanied by a board lawyer. Again, the agenda featured a long lecture on grieving and bereavement. But the parents were not there for an abstract seminar. They had stopped grieving

and had moved well down the road to anger: they wanted cold hard facts.

For more than 90 minutes, they sat patiently, until one father rose and asked why some of the school staff were still in place while investigations were ongoing. O’Flanagan replied that statements of that nature could be considered slanderous and defamatory. “I had to caution the participants,” said O’Flanagan. “There were a number of rumors or allegations that I heard in private and some surfaced in conversation. If they [the parents] were going to establish cause and effect or assign responsibility, it could be defamatory.”

When a mother rose and said she, like all the parents, simply wanted official confirmation of what had happened, and who was responsible, the crowd applauded. O’Flanagan tried to mollify her by saying the coroner and the police were looking into matters. At that, another father stood up and said: “Is this a meeting of the board or a meeting of the parents?” He was applauded as well—but six hours after the meeting began the parents left, again knowing little more than when they went in. Principal RyaU did not attend the meeting. But he denies the school is trying to keep the parents in the dark. “Are there a whole series of things that the school knows and is covering up? Not to my knowledge,” he said. “I’m not Bill Clinton. There’s no conspiracy of silence here that I’m aware of.”

At the Bond Street school, classes have returned to normal, but things may have changed forever. Many of Au Yeung’s 27 remaining Grade 12 classmates say they are still emotionally shaken by what happened. On a more pragmatic note, they say their class discussions will be all the poorer now that they have lost the gift of their friend’s nimble mind. “He brought a critical, logical perspective to all our discussions,” said student council president Angelo, who delivered a tender eulogy at his friend’s funeral. “Things won’t be the same without him.” As for the yearbook that started the catastrophic chain of events? A new page was pasted in and the book sent back out to students. The financial cost to fix the error was a couple of hundred dollars. The real cost may never be known.

With STEPHANIE NOLEN and TOM FENNELL in Toronto