Nfld. & Labrador

Speaking up by staying silent: Stephenville students protest alleged sex offender's return to school

Students are protesting today after a classmate accused of sexual assault returned to their western Newfoundland high school for exams last week.

Student is not attending classes, but came back for exams last week

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

About 100 Stephenville High School students sat silent in class Wednesday — not responding to their teachers, not taking notes — in protest of a classmate accused of sexual assault being allowed to return to school.

Protest organizer Faith Young says other arrangements should have been made to safeguard his accusers at Stephenville High School.

Officials said they'd need a court order to remove the male student, who has chosen not to resume classes at the Grade 9 to 12 school — at least for now — but who returned to the school last week for exams.

A group of silent protesters wore buttons and safety pins on Wednesday at Stephenville High, after a male student was accused with sexual assault earlier this month. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Protest co-organizer Cameron Caines, a Grade 12, student, said the protest went well, even if it was awkward at times for the teachers.

"I think us not talking or working or anything, it's getting the message across in the way we hoped it would. We're just trying to make sure that the school board, like, understands that things need to be changed," he said.

Law allows student to return to school

Young, who is in Grade 12, says the protest is about supporting people who come forward with complaints, so they don't feel abandoned by policies the board says are deficient and are now under review.

Protest co-organizer Cameron Caines he thinks the students' silent protest got their message across. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

In the meantime, school board chair Goronwy Price noted that the law states that the accused student has the right to attend classes.

"It's not a case of us deciding whether we agree or disagree. We've already agreed that we have to follow the law, and at this point, until policy changes, or the law changes, we're sort of tied to the path that we're taking," he said.

Asked if the district has the ability to offer an alternative arrangement, such as home education, Price demurred.

I would be mortified that I have to go to school with the person and I had no other option besides going to school with them.- Abigail Wieffering

"The law — and I'm not a lawyer, and I don't profess to be — the law, as I'm told right now, provides us with the opportunity to do what we're doing."

Caines said it's good the policy is under review.

"If there are charges laid, there is of course that chance that something else could happen in the future, and that's a risk to other students," he said.

Grade 11 student Abigail Wieffering says she took part in the protest to show support for students who say they've been assaulted. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Grade 11 student Abigail Wieffering said she took part because the girls didn't have enough support.

"Everyone knew about it in the school, and no one's really doing anything about it," she said. "So the protest doesn't only help the school board to show them how much the students care about it, but it helps the girls to show how much support they have in the school."

Wieffering said she doesn't know how the victims are able to handle having to go to school with the accused.

"I don't know how they're dealing with it, because I would be mortified that I have to go to school with the person and I had no other option besides going to school with them," she said.

District response

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirmed he 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 to parents and guardians, the NLESD said it's doing everything in can to protect student safety by following the guidance of the Safe and Caring Schools Act. It went on to say the district has "extensive experience" implementing safety plans in schools where students have been criminally charged.

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

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

With files from Colleen Connors, On the Go and the Canadian Press