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Mother blasts high school's response to multiple sexual assault allegations

Last Updated Feb 9, 2018 at 5:40 pm EST

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A Newfoundland mother says the school system re-victimized her daughter and at least two other girls by allowing a male student who allegedly sexually assaulted them to briefly return to school.

The sexual assault allegations have shaken Stephenville High School, where students held a protest Wednesday.

At least three girls say the same boy attacked them in separate incidents offsite. The mother said she wants to make clear the seriousness of the accusations because they underscore how harrowing it was for alleged victims to face him in class or in the hallways.

“We want the word out so that this changes. Victims should not be expected to be re-victimized in a school setting,” said the mother, who can’t be named to protect her daughter’s identity.

Her daughter was the first student to come forward, she said. The boy had picked her up from a babysitting job a few days before Christmas, she said.

“Instead of taking her home, he took her parking at a remote location here in Stephenville and basically confined her to the car. The rape occurred there.”

Her daughter’s allegations also include attempted choking, said the mother. She confirmed the RCMP were notified and charges laid in December. Two more girls at the school came forward after her daughter, she said.

“Sexual assault in itself can mean a whole gamut of things. Some of the comments I’m hearing in the public, they’re not understanding the seriousness,” of the allegations, she added.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirms the boy is accused of sexual assault involving at least one female student “and possibly others” but says his name and other details are safeguarded under youth justice laws.

Officials say they’d need a court order to remove the male student, who has chosen not to go back to the high school — at least for now. They’re also working with the RCMP and status of women advisers to improve what they call “deficiencies in the process.”

The boy was allowed to return to write mid-term exams last week in an area separate from other students.

The mother of the first complainant said he had also returned in mid-January for classes. She only found out when another daughter, who also attends the school, texted her.

School officials weren’t aware of the allegations until the mother told them, she said.

“They asked him to leave while they investigated.”

Newfoundland and Labrador’s youth advocate said Friday the situation has exposed outmoded policies.

“We have children in school saying: ‘We don’t feel safe’,” Jackie Lake Kavanagh said in an interview. “When you have young people that are prepared to stand up and courageously speak to that, I think it’s really, really important that collectively we all listen.”

St. John’s lawyer Lynn Moore, a former youth court prosecutor who has worked extensively with sexual abuse survivors, said the problem isn’t policy.

“Under the Schools Act and the English School District’s bylaws, the school and the school board have the authority to suspend a person that they believe poses a danger to other people in the school,” she said Friday.

“It seems to me what they’re doing is they’re preferring the comfort and wishes of the alleged aggressor over the comfort and wishes of the three survivors.

“We know that one in three women and girls are subjected to sexual violence. And the refusal to deal with it as a serious matter, I think, is a reflection of a culture which does not trust the word of women and girls.”

Many social media users who’ve criticized how the situation was handled note team sports at Stephenville High were swiftly suspended last fall to protect students while police investigated alleged hazing reports.

Moore said it’s mystifying that conditions weren’t imposed to keep the boy accused of sexual assault out of the building.

“Normally when somebody is charged with an offence involving serious personal violence, that person is released on bail conditions not to have contact with or be in the same place as the complainant,” she said.

Such restrictions were apparently imposed but then subsequently changed by the court, Moore said.

“I find that very disturbing.”

The Crown attorney who presided over the matter could not be immediately reached.

The mother of the girl who first spoke out said her daughter is struggling.

“She can’t sleep through the night. She’s having nightmares,” she said.

“There’s a sacred trust that a community has with education institutions. When we send our kids to school, we are expecting them to be in a safe environment.”

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.