Ottawa

Independent body needed to investigate teachers: Canadian Centre for Child Protection

In the wake of two high-profile cases involving teachers in eastern Ontario accused of sexual crimes against students — one charged, the other convicted — parents and other advocates are calling for better oversight to protect children, including an independent body to investigate complaints.

Calls for better oversight grow in wake of high-profile cases in eastern Ontario

Noni Classen is director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, based in Winnipeg. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

In the wake of two high-profile cases involving teachers in eastern Ontario accused of sexual crimes against students — one charged, the other convicted — parents and other advocates are calling for better oversight to protect children, including an independent body to investigate complaints.

Rick Despatie of Ottawa, also known as Rick Watkins, is awaiting trial on nine counts of sexual offences against children, while another teacher, Jeff Peters, is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for two sex-related convictions involving his former students at a high school in Perth, Ont. 

Though unrelated, in both cases multiple former students and their parents told CBC News they had complained to school administrators years before any charges were laid.

[Principals] have a relationship with the individuals who they would be investigating, which creates a real conflict of interest.- Noni Classen, Canadian Centre for Child Protection

CBC isn't aware of any reprimands stemming from those earlier complaints, and parents worry their concerns were dismissed or ignored. 

Part of the issue lies with school principals, who aren't always objective when it comes to investigating their own teachers, according to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

"[Principals] have a relationship with the individuals who they would be investigating, which creates a real conflict of interest," said Noni Classen, director of education at the charitable advocacy centre based in Winnipeg. "So we really need an independent body who is there solely for the interests of the children, the students."

Andrea Dickinson went to a school principal in 2008 to complain about a teacher who she says was 'stalking' and 'obsessing' over her daughter. The teacher was convicted of sex crimes against two other students in April 2021. (Submitted by Andrea Dickinson)

'He's sexually interested in you'

When Andrea Dickinson's girls were teens, she didn't think it would be the teachers she'd need to watch out for. 

But then she found out a history teacher was sending her daughter sexualized messages and, according to Dickinson, exhibiting "obsessive" and "grooming" behaviour.

Dickinson went to the principal at St. John Catholic High School in Perth with her concerns, and was told the matter would be taken care of. But she believes nothing was done, so she warned any other parent or student who would listen. 

"I would tell them, if Mr. Jeff Peters is friendly with you, it's because he's sexually interested in you. And I'm saying this to young girls, 13 and 14," recalled Dickinson. "If it was a parent, I would say, 'You've got to be careful of this guy if your daughter's in his class.'" 

Peters was convicted of sexual assault and sexual exploitation of two former students in April, but other former students say they were groomed and had sexual encounters with Peters as far back as 2005. 

Another parent told CBC that in 2007, copies of sexualized messages Peters had sent to his daughter were handed over to St. John administrators. Like Dickinson, the parent said he was told they'd take care of it.

Former teacher Jeff Peters, seen here in high school yearbook photos, pleaded guilty in April 2021 to sexual assault of two former students. (St. John Catholic High School)

Peters case not unique 

Elsewhere in Ontario, more than a dozen former students and their parents in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Orléans told CBC they, too, had experienced, witnessed or heard about the alleged behaviour of Rick Despatie, who's currently awaiting trial.

But for more than a decade, they say their complaints about the St. Matthew High School teacher went unanswered. 

Despatie was recently charged with sex offences against students, crimes which police say took place as recently as March.

Andrea Dickinson and her daughter Emily say they keep thinking about Jeff Peters's victims and wondering why warnings about the teacher weren't heeded. (Submitted by Emily Dickinson)

Behaviour that might raise red flags for some, such as touching a student's shoulders or meeting them for coffee, isn't necessarily illegal, so principals may not see a need to call in the authorities, said Classen.

"It might not raise you to the level of, 'I think we have a child in need of protection,' but it does raise enough to go, 'This is inappropriate ... it needs to be on someone's radar.'" 

Some teachers at St. John told CBC they remain unsure about how to report suspected improprieties. 

"Teachers, as well as parents, really need to start bringing their concerns outside of the school board to the Ontario College of Teachers," said Classen. 

Rick Despatie is charged with sex crimes against girls. (@Montreal1963/Twitter)

Teachers College responds

The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), the regulatory body responsible for issuing and revoking teaching licences in the province, still recommends any allegations of abuse should first go to the principal or school board.

A new law that went into effect last year in Ontario mandates any educator disciplined for sexually abusive conduct receive a lifetime ban from teaching. Viewing child pornography or sending sexually charged text message are among the crimes that could lead to a ban.

"If an individual does not believe allegations are being handled quickly and appropriately, those allegations should be reported directly to a children's aid society, law enforcement, and the College," the college stated in an email to CBC.  

But Classen believes an outside, independent body would be best to handle complaints about teachers, and she said this is needed in every province.

"I think the overarching takeaway is that if we keep knocking on the door the same way and having the same expectations of the same system in the same way, we're going to have the same problems," she said.

Looking back on the experiences with her daughters, Andrea Dickinson believes parents and students have to be extra vigilant when teachers cross the line. 

"They don't give you advice about your boyfriend. They don't talk to you outside of school. They don't comment on how cute you look in your kilt," she said.

"Report it to the principal, report it to the board, file a complaint with the College of Teachers… and talk to your kids about these things."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On found at: cbc.ca/thebandplayedon You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

now