Canada

Dissecting a tragedy

The jury rules on the suicide of a choirboy

STEPHANIE NOLEN July 20 1998
Canada

Dissecting a tragedy

The jury rules on the suicide of a choirboy

STEPHANIE NOLEN July 20 1998

Dissecting a tragedy

The jury rules on the suicide of a choirboy

For 17 days, the Toronto coroner’s inquest into the Dec. 11 suicide of 17year-old Kenneth Au Yeung had listened to depressing testimony. The most wrenching moment was the July 3 appearance of Catherine Au Yeung. In a hushed voice, she testified that her son, who jumped to his death from a Toronto viaduct after being questioned by his school principal and an offduty police officer, would still be alive if his parents had been present at the interrogation.

Last week, the five-member inquest jury brought down its recommendations—and implicitly agreed with her assessment. “The principal, or acting staff member in charge,” the jury wrote, “must notify the parents of students under the age 18 whenever a serious breach of discipline occurs, when a criminal investigation is commenced, when extremely unusual situations arise, or when in doubt about a situation.”

The circumstances surrounding Au Yeung’s death, first reported in the Feb. 2 issue of Maclean’s, were certainly unusual. A student at the prestigious St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, the teenager had been involved in a school yearbook prank, which resulted in a passage being altered in order to link longtime school choir di-

rector Henry Hodson with the Maple Leaf Gardens sex scandal. Jurors had heard testimony from Au Yeung’s yearbook colleagues that he had asked to contact his parents during questioning by Toronto police Const. Christopher Downer and St. Michael’s principal, John Ryall—in conformity with the official policy of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. But, the students said, they had been told the meeting was “informal”—in other words, that Au Yeung could not call. The students also said that Downer, an alumnus of the school who was present at Ryall’s request, showed them his badge and warned them they could potentially face criminal charges. Hours later, Au Yeung killed himself.

The Au Yeung family had asked the jury to make recommendations to spare other families their tragic experience. “I still feel if I was there that morning, if I was called, Kenneth would be alive today,” Catherine Au Yeung said during her emotional testimony. Of the school administrators who would not let her son call home, she added: “If it was their own children, they would want to be there. I find that quite difficult to take.” And for the grieving mother, there was never any question that the meeting with Ryall and

Downer drove her son to his death. “The significant thing is, he didn’t jump off the bridge when he left home,” she said. “He jumped off after the meeting.”

The night before he died, Au Yeung told his parents about the prank, although he did not tell them he and another boy were responsible. He said Ryall had threatened to call the police if no one confessed. “I said to Kenneth, ‘Don’t worry, if they call the police I have to be there,’ ” Catherine Au Yeung testified. But she wasn’t there—and many of the inquest jury’s 23 recommendations were designed to ensure that such a lapse not occur again. Among other things, the jury said that schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board should “be directed to comply with the board policy requiring mandatory notification of parents if access to the student involves police investigation,” and recommended that teachers should be retrained in such policies every year.

But the jury’s recommendations also touched on police practices. Police, the report said, should develop guidelines for the actions of off-duty officers, and that if an offduty officer is asked to a school, “the matter should be cleared with the appropriate supervisor and the events documented.” As well, the jury said that police should “focus a training program, or expand on existing programs, dealing with a better understanding of adolescent development.” After the report was brought down, Downer told Maclean’s that the recommendations were “insightful”—but that he still thought his actions had been appropriate. He said there was no question that the inquest would change the way both police and school officials do their jobs, but added: “I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. We have to be very careful of the schools not becoming a haven for delinquent behavior. I don’t think the message should be sent that it’s OK to do what you want inside the school because the principal will be scared to pick up the phone and call the police for help.”

As the inquiry finally ended, there was an air of relief outside the coroner’s building in downtown Toronto. Downer, Ryall and Hodson hugged family members and supporters. “On balance, I think a lot of good things came out of this,” Hodson said. “I don’t think there is anything in the recommendations that is harmful to the school. On Dec. 9, I was proud of our school—and on July 10 I am proud of our school.” But Au Yeung’s parents clung to each other in a tearful embrace. Then, without speaking to reporters, they left, carrying the thin sheaf of recommendations intended to ensure that other parents might be spared their pain.

STEPHANIE NOLEN