‘This is heinous’: St. Mike’s scandal a teaching moment for private schools
TORONTO – The day after news broke of an alleged sexual assault at an all-boys private school in Toronto that was captured on camera, a student at another private school a 10-minute drive away told his teacher he had the video on his cellphone.
Steve Tsimikalis, the principal of Toronto Prep School, said he had already planned to talk to the students about the incident at St. Michael’s College School as a means to open up discussions about bullying, assault and sexual assault when he heard about the student’s cellphone video.
“Oh my God, this is heinous,” Tsimikalis thought to himself after learning details of the allegations, knowing many students at his school have friends at St. Michael’s. “When police come out and say, ‘hey, it’s child pornography,’ we had to do something quickly.”
Police sources have said the video, which has been shared on social media, depicts a group of boys pinning down another student in a locker room at St. Michael’s and allegedly sexually assaulting him with a broom handle.
Tsimikalis demanded students delete the video if they had it on their phones. Then he had teachers discuss the situation with the students and he sent a message to parents.
“Kids might not always listen to their teachers, or to their parents, but hopefully if we have the same message that if they do have it, they will make certain it is removed,” Tsimikalis said.
“We do not, to the best of our staff’s knowledge, know of any kid who (still) has it and who has shared it.”
Police are investigating six incidents at St. Michael’s, including two alleged sexual assaults by students, three assaults including one with a belt and a threatening incident. Six students have sexual assault-related charges for the incident in the locker room.
In the wake of the growing police investigation, the head of the forces’ sex crimes unit called on private schools to sign protocols to work closely with officers – something that the force has done with all public school boards in the city.
Private schools also do not fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education – they simply operate as businesses or non-profit organizations – and are left to come up with their own policies and procedures with little oversight.
Tsimikalis said he would welcome a partnership with police, but also said when it comes to allegations that even hint at criminality, police will be called in immediately.
He said the school of about 385 students through grades 7 to 12 doesn’t shy away from discussing difficult topics, including the allegations of assault and sexual assault at St. Michael’s.
“First and foremost, this is unacceptable behaviour, but we also spoke about how to help,” he said of the discussions with students. “If you’re on the fringe, even if you say stop, they might not and might turn on you. There is that legitimate fear. But could you walk away and inform someone, even after the fact? Would you want someone to help you in that way if you were that person being victimized?”
The scandal has prompted several other private schools in Toronto to hold difficult discussions revolving around the allegations at St. Michael’s.
At Crescent School, an all-boys institution that teaches grades 3 to 12, the administration held special assemblies in wake of the scandal, said Lynda Torneck, the school’s director of marketing and communications.
The discussions were designed “to reflect on Crescent’s core values of respect, responsibility, honesty and compassion and how we practise these in our lives,” Torneck said.
“We also spoke to our students about capturing or sharing content on social media and the importance of being responsible digital citizens. These conversations have continued in smaller mentor-group discussions.”
At Upper Canada College, another all-boys school from kindergarten to grade 12, the principal held a special assembly where she spoke about the school’s values.
“This is a transformative time in our culture related to issues of assault and bullying,” said Marnie Peters, the director of marketing and communications of the school, in a statement.
She said the school’s policy “makes it clear that harassment, abuse or intimidation in any form are against everything the College stands for as an educational institution.”
“In addition, we have reached out to our students and alumni on several occasions to invite them to share any concerns they may have had during their time at school,” Peter said. “We applaud all individuals who come forward for their courage in sharing their story. For any and all allegations brought to our attention, we have always met with the individual, listened and taken appropriate action and will continue to do so.”
Similar assemblies were held at Bishop Strachan School, an all-girls school that teaches kindergarten to grade 12.