As a multimillion-dollar lawsuit centred on bullying at a prestigious private girls’ school in Toronto moves through the courts, a former deputy minister of education for the province says a startling lack of oversight remains for Ontario’s private education institutions.
In a $5.5-million lawsuit filed against Havergal College, Andrew Rogerson alleges his seven-year-old daughter is being expelled because he complained that she was bullied.
The school, however, claims Rogerson’s own inappropriate behaviour is the cause of his daughter’s expulsion.
“I just wanted the problem sorted out,” Rogerson told CBC News on Monday. “I never wanted to issue court proceedings. I never wanted to be on the TV. I paid 35 thousand a year to the school. I expect them just to educate my child and keep her safe.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court and there are no allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
As both sides spar in court, one thing is abundantly clear — no provincial body is providing oversight in instances like these.
“This has been a recurring problem for a long time,” said Charles Pascal, former deputy minister of education for the province.
“When it comes to what happens in a private school, the notion that you’re going to get a typical, transparent review of what happened is unfortunately rare,” said Pascal, who is now a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
Rogerson says he would like to see an independent body with expertise examine the situation. A report Rogerson commissioned from York University psychology professor Debra Pepler alleges a “significant, systemic problem” within the school when it comes to issues of bullying.
“There are massive carve outs in the Education Act when it comes to private, independent schools,” said lawyer Angela Salvatore, who is representing Rogerson in the case.
“Much of the legislation dealing with safety — for instance The Safe Schools Act dealing with bullying — does not apply to private independent schools unless they adopt it on their own accord.”
Province says it does not oversee private schools
On its website, the Ministry of Education explains that private schools operate as businesses or non-profit organizations independent of the province, but “in accordance with the legal requirements established by the Education Act.
The post also notes that private schools in Ontario do not receive any funding from the government.
“Private schools are not required to follow ministry-issued policies governing safety and student behaviour [that exist] in publicly-funded schools,” said spokesperson Ingrid Anderson, in a statement. “Parents are therefore encouraged to consider any policies or procedures that a private school has in place before enrolling their child in the school.”
Pascal says that amounts to the province throwing up its hands and saying “buyer beware” about a serious situation.
“The real problem is high end private schools are worried mostly about their reputation,” he said.
“Oftentimes these things are basically repressed. Reputation is number one with these high end schools.”
Questions about how private schools handle bullying allegations were thrust into the spotlight after allegations of sex assault at another Toronto private school arose last year. A former student at St. Michael’s College School filed a $1.65-million lawsuit against the institution last month, alleging it failed to keep him safe.
School says no bullying occurred
Rogerson’s statement of claim, which was filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Oct. 18, alleges his daughter suffered “verbal and physical bullying” at the hands of another girl and adds that not only were his concerns dismissed, but the school decided to expel his daughter and not her alleged bully.
The statement of claim alleges Havergal failed to take action to protect his daughter, who is a Grade 2 student. Her last day of school is currently set for Dec. 20.
“No real solution was ever presented, and the bullying continued,” Rogerson’s claim said.
Havergal, meanwhile, outright denies those allegations in its statement of defence.
In a statement published on the school’s website in October, Principal Catherine Misson said Havergal “will refute and defend the allegations made against the school and the parties involved.
“We conducted investigations into the alleged bullying and are satisfied that no bullying of the student occurred at the school as alleged in the statement of claim,” she said.
“Havergal takes allegations of bullying very seriously. The school does not tolerate bullying within the student population and prides itself on fostering and maintaining collegial and caring conditions.”
The school also alleges Rogerson threatened two staffers during a meeting about the issue, telling them “if you shut me down, I’ll shut you down.” The school says the principal determined his behaviour had breached its code.
The staff members reported they felt intimidated and harassed by Rogerson and said they were not comfortable meeting with him again.
Judicial mediation in the case is scheduled for Thursday. Rogerson says he would like his daughter’s expulsion to be reversed, and for her to stay at Havergal.