Students protest after alleged sex offender returns to N.L. school
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirms the student is accused of sexual assault and faces charges involving one female student and possibly others.
Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 7, 2018 10:54AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 7, 2018 3:09PM EST
STEPHENVILLE, N.L. -- A series of alleged sex assaults. A frightening two-hour police lockdown as Mounties patrolled outside classrooms. And now a student-led protest Wednesday to give voice to at least three girls who faced the prospect of being in school with the boy they say attacked them.
Stress is running high at Stephenville High School, named for the pretty seaside town of 8,000 people in southwestern Newfoundland.
"Everyone's scared," said Faith Young, a Grade 12 student who helped organize the day of action in support of the alleged victims. Participants wore symbolic safety pins as a show of strength for those struggling to cope.
Those familiar with the allegations say at least three girls at the Grade 9 to 12 school say the same male student sexually assaulted them in separate incidents offsite.
Young said she saw the accused student leaving through a side door last week after he was permitted to write mid-term exams in a room separated from other classmates.
"It made me angry. I was disgusted knowing that he was allowed back in our school despite the fact there are other girls who can't even come to school for the fact that they might see him."
On Friday afternoon, during a still-unexplained lockdown, students were kept in classrooms and other parts of the building for more than two hours as police circled. Local RCMP have released few details about an "external threat" that prompted the reaction and say they're still investigating. There were no injuries as students were safely evacuated.
It's not clear to what extent, if any, that unsettling incident was linked to the alleged sexual assaults.
Education officials say they'd need a court order to remove the male student who has chosen not to resume classes at Stephenville High -- at least for now.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirms he is accused of sexual assault and faces charges involving one female student and "possibly others."
Details of the charges along with his identity are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the district said in a statement. There are limited circumstances under provincial law which allow a student to be removed from school, it explained.
"A criminal charge, however serious, does not authorize removal," it says.
"Safety is the paramount concern for the district and the safety plans may include alternate education plans and physical separation of students."
Still, the district is working with several groups including the RCMP and the provincial advisory council on the status of women to improve what it calls "deficiencies in the process."
"We have also discussed with these community partners how we can collaboratively develop a district sexual violence policy."
Janice Kennedy, executive director of the local Bay St. George Status of Women Council, said there's no place for policies that risk re-traumatizing alleged victims.
Other arrangements could have been made to continue the male student's education without putting him back in school with girls who say he assaulted them, she added.
"It's not good enough," Kennedy said in an interview. "We know there are times the courts have failed victims of sexual assaults. We can't be depending on other systems to be doing that work to make sure the school is a safe space."
Susan Fowlow's daughter is in Grade 12 at Stephenville High.
"She's not a victim but she's certainly a friend of the girls who have come forward," she said in an interview. Fowlow said she knows of at least three girls who say they were assaulted.
She declined to discuss details of the allegations except to say they happened away from the school.
Fowlow, a former parent representative on the school council, resigned last month when she learned that parents of those girls were informed the accused boy would be allowed to return to class. One mother temporarily withdrew her two daughters from school because they didn't feel comfortable, Fowlow said.
She said she understands the accused has the right to an education, but said those girls do too: "Where was their access?"
Those girls were back in class as of Tuesday, Fowlow said.
"He's not there. However, he could change his mind tomorrow and we're right back into this."
Young said the day of action was not to demonize the accused. It's about support for those girls who came forward.
"A lot of them are having nightmares, having a lot of issues," she said. "We want every student to feel safe where they are."