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School headmaster Stephen Johnson said steps are being taken to prevent such incidents in the future. ((CBC))

Four male students have been charged with sexual assault at St. John's-Ravenscourt private school in Winnipeg.

The students — two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old — have all been charged with sexual assault with a weapon, forcible confinement, and uttering threats, police said Thursday.

Three of the students are youths who are in custody at the Manitoba Youth Centre.

The 18-year-old is at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. The young man appeared briefly in court by a video link from an interview room at the jail Thursday morning on the expectation he would apply for bail.

'He's sitting in a jail for the very first time in his life, so it's expected that he'll be a little bit unsettled by that experience.'—Defence lawyer Sheldon Pinx

However, the presiding judge agreed to the Crown's request for more time to prepare for the hearing. Information about the case had only been forwarded by police to prosecutors about 10 minutes prior to his appearance, court was told.  

The Crown will oppose his release, and the judge heard that prosecutors will argue that releasing the man would harm the public's confidence in the justice system.

Being behind bars will likely be jarring for the young man, defence lawyer Sheldon Pinx said.

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St. John's-Ravenscourt private school has been rocked by the allegations of sexual assault by some students against fellow students. ((CBC))

"My client is only 18," Pinx said. "Needless to say, he's never been involved in the justice system before ... he's sitting in a jail for the very first time in his life, so it's expected that he'll be a little bit unsettled by that experience."

A special hearing will be held Friday for the man to apply for bail. The youths charged will appear in youth court at 2 p.m. Thursday.

The investigation is continuing by the police service's child abuse unit and sex crimes unit, and additional charges are pending.

Victims confined by force: police

The alleged assaults date back to last fall but only came to light last week, according to SJR headmaster Stephen Johnson.

Neither the school nor the police have revealed the nature of the incidents, but CBC News has learned they allegedly involved threats of sodomy toward younger students by the four who have been charged.

The older boys allegedly pinned the younger ones on the floor and removed their pants. A walking stick was allegedly held near the anus of a victim as he was threatened with sodomy. Court documents filed in regard to the adult's case confirm that police believe the victims were forcibly confined and assaulted with a "wooden stick."

As many as 15 students were reportedly abused.

All of the boys involved — the accused and the alleged victims — were boarders at the school, which goes from kindergarten to Grade 12. The alleged victims were in Grades 8 to 10, CBC News has been told.

Suspensions indefinite

The four students were immediately suspended when the school learned of the allegations last Friday.

School administrators contacted Winnipeg police earlier this week. The provincial Department of Child and Family Services is also involved.

Two of the students were told by school officials Monday they would be expelled, but were given the option to appeal or voluntarily withdraw.

They chose to leave on their own and complete their courses online or by mail, officials said, noting the boys would not receive diplomas from the school but rather a Manitoba high school certificate if they graduate.

The two other students, whom police said are from out of province, were initially given a five-day suspension.

However, Johnson said on Thursday that the suspensions have been extended indefinitely. Even if granted bail by the courts, they will not be allowed back to school, Johnson said.

Of the two students expelled, one was originally an international boarder but his family now lives in Winnipeg. The other is from Alberta.

Confidence shaken

Many parents who spoke with CBC News about the incidents believe the school is still a safe place and commended administrators and staff for taking such quick action.

But the confidence of at least one parent has been shaken. Yan Jiang is having second thoughts about registering her eight-year-old son at SJR. 

'I can't tell you this is a safe place for your son or somebody else's son … until we do a debrief of how this happened'—SJR headmaster Stephen Johnson

"If the school is not safe, what's the point of sending your son to a place that is in danger?" she said.

Even Johnson said he can't give Jiang any assurances. The fact the boarding students kept the alleged incidents a secret for so many months means something went terribly wrong, he said.

"I can't tell you this is a safe place for your son or somebody else's son … until we do a debrief of how this happened," he said.

"We're not going to know until we … start talking about the details of what each of those boys felt and why they couldn't come forward."

Administrators are taking steps to try to prevent such incidents in the future. That includes counselling for students on how to deal with any situations they encounter.

The school is located at 400 South Dr., on the banks of the Red River, in the city's Wildwood neighbourhood.

According to its website, the school has 830 students with boarding arrangements available for about 50 students.

The cost to board at the prestigious school, which dates back to 1820, ranged in the current academic year from $30,000 to $40,000 per student.

Tuition for students who attended the school but did not board there ranged from $13,000 to nearly $17,000, depending on their grade level.