Listen to the kids: Youth advocate calls for changes to deal with Stephenville sex assault claims

The Child and Youth Advocate applauds students for coming forward and says school district needs updated rules and policies to deal with their concerns.

Child and Youth Advocate says it took courage for students to come forward and new policies are needed

It's alleged that a male student from Stephenville High School has sexually assaulted multiple female students. (CBC)

A St. John's lawyer says the province's English School District had more room than it's letting on to take decisive action to prevent a student accused of sexual assault from going back to the same school as his accusers.

But the Child and Youth Advocate says the district's hands were tied by policy that needs changing.

Tensions have been running high at Stephenville High School for the past few weeks, after the student was permitted to return to the school to write exams.

Young people in Stephenville are stating publicly that they need and expect change.- Jackie Lake Kavanagh, youth advocate

The student has since chosen not to return to class — at least for now.

But the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District maintains that, under the terms of the Schools Act, it needs a court order to prevent him from returning should he choose.

Lynn Moore, a lawyer who specializes in sexual assault cases, says the NLESD could have done more to support students in this case. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Lynn Moore, a lawyer specializing in sexual assault cases, says there are parts of the Schools Act that the NLESD could have interpreted more liberally.

"The English School District's own bylaws say the student can be suspended if the board supports the suspension of students as required in response to inappropriate, disruptive, or dangerous student behaviour," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's On the Go.

Moore maintains the male student's alleged actions clearly would fall under that category.

"What they have decided is that this student's behaviour is not dangerous enough and that these girls are not worth protecting," she said.

New policies needed

Jackie Lake Kavanagh, the province's Child and Youth Advocate, says after speaking with senior NLESD officials she believes that current policies and legislation need to be changed to give the board the power to address situations like the one in Stephenville.

Lake Kavanagh said she applauds students who came forward to express their concerns, and thinks the Safe and Caring Schools Act specifically needs to be looked at to ensure that students feel it actually looks after their well being.

"While it may be overall a good policy approach, I'm not even sure that the word sexual violence is even reflected in that policy," she told CBC Radio's On The Go. "So I think there is significant room there for improvements"

Jackie Lake Kavanagh, Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate, says policies should be changed to give the NLESD greater ability to address certain issues of student safety. (CBC)

Lake Kavanagh can't give concrete examples of how a policy change would look with regards to the situation in Stephenville, but she does think the process of implementing change should involve the students, families and anyone else who has a stake in school safety.

"I think the concern in Stephenville is that we have issues of student safety and certainly their perceptions of their safety and we have issues around rights to education," she said.

"The bottom line is that we need to ensure that students feel safe coming to school and that they have a right to their education."

School district reviewing act

The NLESD has confirmed that the male student faces charges involving one female student and possibly others, but details of the charges along with his identity are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

In a letter sent to students and parents, the board said that after reviewing the Schools Act, it was determined that the district would be be unable to bar the student from returning to school.

Stephenville High School students wore pins and buttons, and staged a silent protest in their classes on Wednesday. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Despite this, Donna Miller Fry, the assistant director of programs in western N.L., said the board would do everything it can to ensure the safety and well-being of its students.

"Safety is the paramount concern for the district and the safety plans may include alternate education plans and physical separation of students," she wrote. 

"Movement of students within the school may be restricted and, where necessary, supervision may be imposed during the school day."

The NLESD added that it has been in contact with police, the youth advocate, women's groups and others, to discuss how it can collaboratively develop a sexual violence policy for schools.

But Moore believes that things can be done to deal with the situation in Stephenville right now. 

"What the school board is doing is protecting his right to be in school to the detriment to these survivors because there is an unwillingness to accept that this kind of thing happens, and we know that it happens," said Moore.

With files from On The Go