TORONTO — Two leaders at an all-boys private school rocked by allegations of assault and sexual assault by students resigned on Thursday amid mounting criticism over the institution’s handling of the incidents, which are now under a police investigation.
St. Michael’s College School said principal Greg Reeves and board president Father Jefferson Thompson had stepped down to allow the Roman Catholic institution to move forward “without distractions.”
Reeves had been criticized for not promptly reporting an alleged sexual assault to police last week and has since admitted that the incidents that have come to light clearly indicate the school has a problem.
The chair of the board, however, said Reeves and Thompson had always put students first.
“Having fulfilled their moral and ethical obligations to manage the immediate crisis and engage our school community, this courageous decision allows us to move forward with our goals: understanding how these events could have occurred, regaining the trust of our community and bringing cultural change to our school,” Michael Forsayeth said in a statement.
Toronto police are investigating a total of six incidents involving students at the school. On Monday, sex assault-related charges were laid against six teens in connection with one incident that police sources say shows several members of a St. Michael’s sports team pinning down a student and allegedly sexually assaulting him with a broom handle.
St. Michael’s is launching an independent review into the school’s culture, and urged students to report any inappropriate incidents. It has also set up an anonymous voicemail for those who want to share their experiences.
The scandal had prompted some alumni, who have come forward with their own stories of bullying and harassment stretching back decades, to call for the resignation of the school’s leadership.
“I think Greg and Jeff have done the right thing for the school, the right thing for the boys and the right thing to be able to clear the deck and move forward quickly,” said Dave Trafford, who graduated from St. Michael’s in 1979.
Trafford said he had an incredible time at the school — he was the student body president, played on the hockey team, performed in musicals and ran its newspaper. He had a close group of friends who also had a great time.
Or so he thought, until he discovered last week that two of his best friends had struggled with bullying and felt unsafe at St. Michael’s.
“I did not see it then,” Trafford said. “It’s shocking, disappointing and heartbreaking.”
Trafford said now the school has an opportunity to take a good look at itself, figure out what happened and find out how they missed it.
Now a radio host at NewsTalk 1010, Trafford points to an interview with St. Michael’s guidance counsellor, John Connelly, he did in mid-October — weeks before the first allegations surfaced at the school. The topic was how to educate students about violence against women.
“We talk about hypermasculinity and I have a lot of students who come to me from that side of it who say ‘Listen, I love this school, but there is this hypermasculine culture and I don’t always feel safe when I’m in this building,’” Connelly says during the interview.
A number of former students who spoke with The Canadian Press said they’re eager to share their stories as part of the independent review.
Nathan Goveas graduated from St. Michael’s in 2003.
“I was bullied the entire time I was there, right from day one,” said Goveas, who’s now a teacher. “I’m a skinny brown kid. People made fun of my appearance. It was mostly verbal bullying.”
He never complained, but said his mother grew worried when she noticed he was feeling “down” in Grade 11. So she went to the administration.
“The principal dismissed it as boys will be boys,” Goveas said.
Kyle Fraser said he left St. Michael’s in 2013 after Grade 10, unable to deal with the bullying.
“I was bullied non stop, very relentless, not only by the students (but also) by the staff,” he said. “All that stuff affected me for a very long time…I was suicidal at one point.”
Fraser shared his story at an alumni meeting at the school on Tuesday night and received a lot of support afterward.
“It was very warming and put me in a peaceful state of mind,” he said. “There are a lot of good people there.”
Jean-Paul Bedard went public with his story last week in the wake of the scandal. He lived through a violent, sexualized hazing incident at the school in the 1980s. He didn’t attend the alumni meeting, but has offered his services to the school as not only a survivor of sexual assault, but also as a trained trauma peer mentor. The school has yet to take up his offer.
D’Arcy McKeown said he had a great time at St. Michael’s. Just a few months after graduating from the Roman Catholic school in 2005, he says he was sexually assaulted with a broom handle at McGill University as part of a hazing with the football team.
He left after just two weeks and returned to his alma mater, St. Michael’s, which he called a “safe space to recover.” He volunteered with the school’s football program for a time, before eventually resuming his studies at the University of Toronto.
McKeown applauded the school’s desire to take a victim-centric approach as it deals with both the current incidents and the historical “deep dive” into its culture.
“You need to get everything out there,” he said. “If others’ unfortunate experiences can help guide St. Mike’s in preventing these things going forward, it’s for the best, as painful as it may be for some to tell these stories.”
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press