Education

Look back in anger

An ex-student sues a range of school officials

BARRY CAME February 24 1997
Education

Look back in anger

An ex-student sues a range of school officials

BARRY CAME February 24 1997

Look back in anger

Education

An ex-student sues a range of school officials

BARRY CAME

Mark Rae can still vividly recall the precise moment he lost his childhood innocence. He was eight years old—a lonely kid from a troubled home in the central Ontario town of Collingwood—when it happened. His mother, a single parent, had agreed to allow her son to accept an invitation from his elementary schoolteacher to attend a movie at the local drive-in, followed by an overnight visit to the teacher’s house. All went well until the teacher, a married, 30-year-old father of two daughters, joined Mark in bed that night. The teacher first reached into the boy’s underwear to fondle his genitals, then removed the underwear completely to force anal intercourse upon the youngster. “I was scared and it was hurting and I didn’t know what was happening,” murmurs Rae, now 27, as he relives the incident that he blames for starting a chain of events that altered his life. ‘That guy destroyed my childhood,” he says quietly after a long pause. “He stole it from me and I can never get it back again.”

While that is no doubt true, Rae, now a paper products salesman living in Barrie, Ont., north of Toronto, has decided to seek compensation for his suffering in a court of law. On Jan. 31, he filed a civil suit in Ontario court, seeking $5 million in damages from those he holds responsible for his plight: David Salter, Rae’s former teacher; Terry Geddes, vice-principal of Collingwood’s Connaught Public School at the time the incidents took place; and the Simcoe County Board of Education. The size of the claim alone is enough to give pause to Ontario’s educational establishment. But school authorities, both inside the province and beyond, will train a keen eye on Rae’s progress through the courts for another reason: the suit is likely to establish precedents with far-reaching implications for educators, leaving school officials, as well as the perpetrators themselves, open to damage actions. “We want to prove that laws already exist, certainly in Ontario and probably elsewhere as well, that make it impossible for anyone to turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse of a

child,” explains Barry Swadron, Rae’s lawyer. “If someone knows, or even suspects it is happening and they don’t report it, then they better understand they are guilty of an offence punishable under law.”

In Rae’s case, the relevant law is Ontario’s Child Welfare Act, which stipulates that every person who has information about the abuse of a child “shall forthwith report that

information to a [children’s aid] society.” In the statement of claim filed in court, Rae “pleads and relies upon” the Ontario statute in seeking $4 million in general damages, $750,000 in special damages and $250,000 in punitive and exemplary damages. Rae says he has suffered “severe emotional and psychological harm” as well as physical ailments, ranging from nightmares to recurrent bouts of crying. All three defendants were served with notice earlier this month that legal proceedings had been com-

menced against them. Of the three, only a spokesman for the Simcoe board responded to telephone calls made by Maclean’s last week. But even then, it was to offer a blunt “no comment” on the matter. In time, the defendants will be filing a statement of defence, which will challenge the accuracy of Rae’s allegations.

But Rae says he is not about to back off. The teacher involved, David Salter, has already faced criminal charges as a result of the incident. He was convicted last March on three counts of indecent and sexual assault involving Rae and three other schoolboys in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In May, he was sentenced to two years less a day. He was released on parole early in January, after serving one-third of his sentence. It was Salter’s early release, in fact, that reinforced Rae’s determination to proceed with his civil action. “It bothers me,” he confesses, “to see a guy that messed up so much of my life get out of jail after serving only seven or eight months.”

At the same time, Rae would also like to see an accounting from the Simcoe board and especially former vice-principal Geddes, now principal of a public school in Wasaga Beach, 25 km from Collingwood. Rae still harbors bitter memories of complaining to school officials, one of whom he believes may have been Geddes, about Salter’s behavior. According to Rae, the official pointed out that if he persisted with his story, the police would have to be called as well as the boy’s mother and father. The official noted that both of his parents would be angry, and the courts would have to get involved as well. “Here I was, a scared little eight-year-old,” Rae acidly recalls, “and when I finally managed to gather enough courage to raise my voice, all they did was scare me all over again.” Geddes will be filing a defence challenging those accusations.

Perhaps just as disturbing is the fact that Rae’s is not an isolated story. Two employees—a teacher and a principal—from the Toronto Board of Education are currently facing trial on sexual assault charges involving young students, while the Metro Toronto Separate School Board is embroiled in a civil lawsuit much like the one Rae has launched against the Simcoe board. In Nova Scotia, provincial government authorities are defending themselves in another similar civil action. For worried school authorities across the country, most of whom are already tightening screening procedures when hiring new teaching staff, it is one more reminder of precisely how difficult is the task.