Halifax teacher wins human-rights fight

A human rights board has sided with Lindsay Willow, the Halifax teacher who claimed she was falsely accused of having a relationship with a student because she was labelled a lesbian.

A human rights board has sided with Lindsay Willow, the Halifax teacher who claimed she was falsely accused of having a relationship with a student because she was labelled a lesbian.

In a decision released Wednesday, board chair Walter Thompson said Willow was discriminated against by her principal at Halifax West High School, a fellow teacher and the Halifax Regional School Board.

"I'm thrilled," Willow told CBC News.

She filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 2001, complaining the allegation of an affair with a female student hurt her career prospects.

In September 2000, John Orlando and a phys-ed teacher approached principal Gordon Young, saying Willow was seen with a 17-year-old student in a bathroom in a former boys' locker room.

Young called the police, who subsequently cleared Willow of any wrongdoing.

In his decision, Thompson said the circumstances of that day were not suspicious.

"They were innocent. The construction of them as indicative of a sexual assault demonstrates, in my view, an element of discrimination against Ms. Willow because of her perceived sexual orientation," he wrote.

Thompson said Young made a mistake in not asking Willow for her side of the story and failed to create a positive work environment for her.

He also said the school board "washed its hands" of Willow's plea.

Thompson ordered the school board to pay Willow $27,375 in damages, as well as $2,500 to the former high school student involved and $1,000 to Willow's parents for their expenses.

"It's the highest damages ever awarded in Nova Scotia, from my understanding," Willow said. "It's not close to what it cost me to go through the whole process, but I think it says a huge statement."

In addition, Thompson ordered the school board to issue Willow a full retraction and apology.

Board superintendent Carole Olsen apologized "unreservedly" Wednesday afternoon.

"I accept that she has suffered as a result of being wrongfully accused of an impropriety with a student. I accept that she suffered as a result of the rumours that swirled around her, and I accept that this board failed in its duty to clear her name," she said.

Olsen also said Young will remain in his position as a senior administrator at the school board. She said she will speak with him about the ruling, but the details of that conversation will remain private.

As for Willow's future, Olsen said her job prospects are as good as any other teacher's working for the school board.

Willow is not getting an apology from Young or Orlando, as she requested. In his decision, Thompson said they should have apologized years ago and he doubted an apology now would be sincere.