Burlington students stage walkout after school email calls sexual assault allegation 'rumours'

Students at Nelson High School in Burlington staged a walkout Thursday afternoon in hopes of starting a conversation about how Halton's public school board handles reports of sexual assault.

Halton District School Board says it apologizes if wording seemed 'dismissive'

Students from Nelson High School in Burlington walked out of class on Nov,. 25, 2021 to protest how the school handled a recent allegation of sexual assault. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Students at Nelson High School in Burlington, Ont., staged a walkout Thursday afternoon in hopes of starting a conversation about how Halton's public school board handles reports of sexual assault.

"Nelson," shouted one student holding a megaphone. "Listen," responded the crowd of roughly 200 students, some holding signs, as cars driving by honked in support.

Kai Ruhl, a Grade 11 student who helped organize the protest, said it was in response to an email the school's principal sent to students describing allegations of sexual assault as "rumours."

The 16-year-old, who said he was inspired by recent student actions in other Canadian cities, explained that the school's email led to some students asking if the alleged assault was "just some silly high school drama."

Kai Ruhl, 16, helped organize the walkout. The Grade 11 student said Halton District School Board's Safe & Accepting Schools Policy doesn't provide specifics on how allegations of sexual assault should be handled. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The message didn't provide any references to supports or resources for people who might be struggling, Ruhl pointed out.

"I am writing to inform you that we've become aware of rumours circulating on social media and in the community about a sexual assault involving Nelson students," read a copy of the email from principal Stephen Sampson that was viewed by CBC.

It goes on to say that there was no risk to student safety and that police had been contacted. 

Police, school investigating allegations

Halton District School Board said staff at Nelson learned on Nov. 4 that there was information on social media about a sexual assault involving students there.

Police were "immediately contacted and began an investigation," according to a statement sent to CBC by HDSB spokesperson Jason Miser.

A school investigation is also underway and "resources were provided to support the individuals involved," he added.

The walkout was sparked by an email from Nelson's principal describing allegations of sexual assault as "rumours." (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Halton police said the service is aware of the letter Nelson's principal sent home about an "allegation of sexual assault," but declined to say more, citing its "victim-centric" approach to sexual assault investigations.

"All allegations of sexual assault brought to the Halton Regional Police Service are investigated thoroughly and charges are laid when appropriate," wrote Const. Steve Elms in an email.

'We apologize,' says HDSB

Miser said the letter the school sent to caregivers and students was meant to protect the privacy of students and to ask them to consider it before posting about the incident on social media.

"This initial communication sent to the Nelson community on Nov. 4 was in no way intended to signify the end of the process, or a dismissal of the incidents alleged at that time, by the Nelson administration," he wrote.

"If the early pre-investigative use of the word 'rumours' in any way led to the sense that Nelson was dismissive of this serious matter, we apologize for this."

Ruhl said he has spoken with Nelson's principal who was also apologetic.

Still, he said more should be done to ensure a better response to any future allegations or assaults.

"I want schools to understand that maybe they can have a specific policy put into place when stuff like this happens and to be a bit more understanding and try to protect the students and not necessarily their reputation."

Approximately 200 students took part in the walkout. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Miser said a follow-up letter was sent to the Nelson community after the principal's initial email, this time with a list of resources and support for students and families.

The board pointed to its Safe & Accepting Schools policy and procedures as the protocol it follows when an allegation of sexual assault is made.

HDSB "remains confident" that staff at Nelson "provided a comprehensive response to this situation," wrote Miser.

But Ruhl said they've scanned the policy and couldn't find more than a passing reference that lists sexual assault under grounds for expulsion.

"I've looked at it but I can't find any specifics in regards to sexual assault," he said.

"I think if the board had a policy this would have been handled a lot better."