Former students allege 3 decades of inappropriate behaviour by P.E.I. teacher convicted of sexual touching
Warning: This story contains details some may find disturbing
Vanessa Rice approached a private meeting with her high school band teacher, Roger Jabbour, with dread. She wasn't able to make a band performance and she knew he wouldn't be happy.
It was the spring of 2017. The 16-year-old was seated on a couch in his office, wearing shorts. The door was closed.
It was the end of the day so the band area was deserted. She remembers Jabbour rolling his office chair right in front of her, strumming a guitar while he was talking, then reaching over and laying his hand on her bare leg, above her knee.
She was taken aback. "I just kind of moved my leg away," she said. "He just kept speaking as if it was normal.... It made me feel uneasy, nothing like that had ever happened before."
And yet it had happened before to another student, a couple of years earlier.
With a student we're calling Sarah, Jabbour ran his hands up her thighs, under her shorts, and squeezed her legs.
The band teacher was convicted of sexually touching Sarah and two other female students at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown and sentenced to 15 months in jail in February 2019. Their names are protected by a court-ordered publication ban.
The three girls were students at Colonel Gray between 2012 and 2015 and were 14 and 15 at the time. They testified under oath that they met privately with Jabbour in his office at Colonel Gray and that behind closed doors, he touched them sexually.
According to the court that included full body hugs, sometimes pressing them up against a wall, kissing their cheeks and neck, and rubbing their backs. Sarah said she could feel his erect penis as he held her and swayed back and forth. She also testified that Jabbour eventually started pulling her onto his lap so that she straddled him.
At a separate trial in September 2018, Jabbour was acquitted on allegations of sexual exploitation linked to another student in the early 1990s. The judge in that case said she found the woman — who's now in her mid-40s — honest, and the judge didn't believe Jabbour's story. She said she found him argumentative, illogical, and evasive — but concluded there was reasonable doubt so she couldn't convict him.
After Jabbour was charged, the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women started hearing from former students and parents that rumours had circulated for years about Jabbour's behaviour. CBC News was getting similar reports and started investigating.
CBC has since talked to 23 other former students of Jabbour's, spanning the past three decades. They say they endured or witnessed inappropriate behaviour including frequent unwanted hugs, hand-holding and shoulder rubs, frequent crying spells by Jabbour, sexual comments and using students as confidantes, along with angry outbursts and swearing at students.
Much of what they say happened took place in one-on-one meetings with Jabbour so it's difficult to verify their individual stories. However, when taken together they suggest a continued pattern of inappropriate behaviour over his teaching career.
At his trial related to the 2012-2015 charges, Jabbour told the court he considered himself a musical friend and mentor — perhaps even "a father figure" — to the estimated 4,000 students he'd taught over his 46-year career. He told the court he did hug students regularly, and often held their hands to say thank you and to offer comfort and support.
Jabbour confirmed some activities with the three girls including taking them out to dinner, watching a movie with two students at one of their homes when her parents were out, and emailing them regularly from his personal email — almost every night with one of the complainants.
Jabbour testified that his contact with them and all his students was part of a normal student-teacher relationship. A number of co-workers, professional colleagues, parents and former students thought so too. They wrote letters of support to the court prior to his sentencing.
Some of their comments included describing the band room as a "safe place" where Jabbour "treated everyone with respect" and that they "never saw any red flags" — that his behaviour was "beyond reproach."
However the judge who sentenced him, John Douglas, said, "There was nothing typical or usual about Mr. Jabbour's relationship and conduct with the three complainants." Douglas determined the teacher's actions went beyond inappropriate and were for his own sexual gratification.
Jabbour was given a 15-month sentence. He was recently released from jail.
A report from the Parole Board of Canada expressed concern that Jabbour had not taken part in an assessment while in jail and might be minimizing or rationalizing his actions, admitting only to a few "misconstrued hugs." The parole board concluded it is not safe for Jabbour to be around females, particularly when he is in a "trust and or authority relationship."
Through his lawyer he told CBC he had no comment on the new allegations.
'He was revered'
"He was revered as the best band teacher in P.E.I.... We were so proud to be part of that band and to be under his direction because he had such a great reputation as a teacher and band director," recalls Erica Stanley (Colonel Gray 1991-1994). "It was more than a job for him," she said. "He was devoted to the program, devoted to our success."
Students CBC talked to said being in band was like being part of a supportive family — one that gathered for early morning practice, fundraised for trips, performed at school concerts, and travelled for competitions out of province and out of the country. When they excelled, and they often did, it was a success they all shared.
"I knew him more than any teacher ... he was a closer kind of teacher, more of a mentor and felt more like a friend," said Stanley.
That friendship is one of the reasons some say they had such a difficult time coming to terms with his behaviour.
Hugs, touching, crying
Jabbour's hugs were difficult to avoid, numerous students told CBC. He would approach them with arms outstretched.
"He would request students hug him and get emotional and upset if you refused to do so," said Stephanie Bethune (Colonel Gray 2007-10).
Several students, including Maria Campbell (Colonel Gray 2000-03), vividly recall feeling trapped by Jabbour. "If you're alone at the computer, he'll come put his arms over you and whisper close in your ear.... He has an arm over either of my shoulders, bends down and his head's right beside mine ... I freeze in the moment and then slink out and he gives me this look like, 'Oh? Is something wrong?'"
Campbell said she wanted to run from the room but worried it might affect her dreams of a musical career. She said she wanted to tell him not to put his arms around her, that she didn't want to hug him, even if he was sitting near her, and crying.
"I didn't want to speak up because those grades depended on it." She believed Jabbour controlled her future acceptance in a music program after high school.
Lisa Sanderson (Colonel Gray 1993-96) recalls Jabbour asking for "lots and lots and lots of hugs" on a daily basis. "Sometimes his hand would go up to the back of your neck and he just kind of give you a little squeeze."
Other students described shoulder rubs, and other unwanted touches. And they said when students left class for the day Jabbour would often ask for high-fives, or ask them to rub his bald head. "It was a weirdly frequent one," said Sarah.
To the students he was Roger, or Rog — not Mr. Jabbour.
Students who testified at his trials, and a number of others CBC talked to, said they were put in the position of being Jabbour's confidantes, as he sought to unload his personal troubles and insecurities, and that he asked them to share personal details of their own dating relationships.
"He put himself in this position where he would start to ask for advice and talk about more personal things," said a woman we're calling Jennifer, who was a student of Jabbour's in the early '90s and testified against him in court.
"I remember very clearly feeling like I had a responsibility to protect him, which is really messed up."
Students describe this as a gradual process, starting with chats about specific musical pieces and band performances, and evolving into conversations about other students, teachers, administrators and Jabbour's own family.
Sarah recalls him asking repeatedly why students didn't like him and feeling like she had to reassure him that they did. "He had to be universally liked," she said.
"He cried about issues going on in his life," said a woman we're calling Alicia, who also testified against him.
"He would cry ... he would hold our hands ... but mostly he cried a fair bit," echoed Bethune.
"I knew it was very strange for a 16-year-old to be in a position where I'm offering therapy to this grown man," said Campbell. "It's almost like you develop a tolerance to it to some degree and then it becomes more acceptable in a patterned type of behaviour, which is strange."
Campbell said she was called to his office a couple of times a week and eventually started bringing a male student with her so she wouldn't be alone with Jabbour — a precaution several other students told CBC they took as well.
"If you're there alone he's going to block the door, ask you about your boyfriends, tell you you don't need a boyfriend," recalled Campbell.
At the time Sanderson, and some others who spoke with CBC, said they felt flattered to be singled out as mature enough to assume the role of confidante. She said she remembers thinking, "Wow, he must really think that I'm special that he's taking the time to talk to me. He's talking about his home life. Like wow we have a connection."
Now a high school music teacher in New Brunswick, Sanderson has had time to reflect on what happened at Colonel Gray.
"That dynamic is so messed up," she said. "That's not the kind of connection that, you know, what a teacher and student should have."
She feels Jabbour took advantage of his position of power and trust to manipulate students.
"He was kind of using students like me to make him feel better," Sanderson said. "He has a lot of talent and he did a lot of things for music on Prince Edward Island, but at the expense of all of these students who are now adults."
Chaperone questions behaviour
As a parent, Anne Gillis remembers the Colonel Gray band program creating a "lot of wonderful opportunities for the students."
She said she found Jabbour to be "exacting," "demanding," and a "task master" — but when she chaperoned a band trip to Nova Scotia in the spring of 2004, she said she also discovered he had a disturbing inability to maintain an appropriate distance from students.
She said she and a male parent were checking the students' hotel rooms after midnight to make sure they had settled in for the night. Gillis said they found Jabbour in a room with four female students. Gillis said she told Jabbour to leave, which she said he reluctantly did.
Gillis said the other parent-chaperones agreed she should talk to Jabbour about the incident the next day.
"What I deemed inappropriate, he didn't have a concern with," she recalls. Upon their return to P.E.I. and supported by the other parent-chaperones, Gillis said she voiced her concerns to a school official, but doesn't know if any action was taken.
Campbell and another student also told CBC that a similar incident happened a couple of years earlier on a band trip to Quebec. A student — who asked not to be named — remembers Jabbour ran into her hotel room, giggling. About 10 students were present, she said, and Jabbour asked them to hide him.
The student said Jabbour dove under the bedcovers, and when the chaperone came in asking where he was, the students pointed to the bed. She said the chaperone whipped the blankets off him, told him it was inappropriate to be there, and ordered him out. Neither student knows whether the incident was reported.
Bethune has her own band trip recollection. She said she was alone in her hotel room one evening when Jabbour knocked, asking to come in.
"I knew I wasn't supposed to be alone with him," she said. "I remember tears.... He was crying, upset, angry he couldn't come in."
Rice remembers a band bus trip where Jabbour was walking up and down the aisle and fell into her seatmate's lap. She said he joked about it for the rest of the trip and talked about going to the seatmate's hotel room later.
Jabbour had a reputation for demanding the best from his students, and urging them to strive for perfection. Some students told CBC they quit band because they didn't feel up to the challenge.
But others said they left because they just couldn't be around Jabbour any longer.
Sanderson remembers a female classmate who quit band abruptly.
"He would make comments sometimes like, 'You're so close I can see you get dressed in the morning,'" she said.
Stanley and another student, in a different year, both remember Jabbour saying the same thing. They said he was instructing a student at practice and said, "You have to play this part really sleazy," then pointing to another student, said, "Ask her — she would know what I'm talking about."
Several students told CBC Jabbour joked around with male students, "really inappropriate jokes of a sexual nature, like constantly, it was back and forth," said Rice.
'S**t for brains'
At his trial, Jabbour denied getting angry with students, but many of the students CBC talked with tell a different story — of a man prone to frequent angry outbursts, kicking over chairs and music stands, and throwing his conductor's baton.
"He was well known for calling students 's**t for brains," remembers Bethune. It was a phrase heard so often, she said, that students in her year came up with an acronym.
"By the end of the year, people would say 'S.F.B.' Everyone knew what it meant," said Bethune. Half a dozen other students in other years told CBC they heard Jabbour use the same phrase often.
Tillie MacEachern (Colonel Gray 2014-17) said she and other students also remember him telling students "You have your head shoved so far up your a**."
"He would just push people too far to a point of embarrassing them or humiliating them," said MacEachern. She has dyslexia, and said when she played a wrong note during practice, "He asked me if I was deaf, dumb or stupid in front of the band."
"In my definition of bullying, he bullied me a lot," said MacEachern. "He just picked every opportunity he could to pick me out of a crowd."
Eventually she said she couldn't take it any longer. MacEachern said she and her parents met with Jabbour and school officials. MacEachern still has the note she wrote prior to that meeting, outlining the behaviours she wanted addressed.
"Overall I found him very rude and embarrassing. He is mean and handles his feelings very immaturely — like a teenage girl," she wrote at the time.
She said at that meeting, Jabbour broke down crying, saying he didn't intend for her to be hurt.
"He was upset that I got his signals mixed up.... There was never really, 'I'm sorry for what I did' ... It was kind of more putting the blame all back on me."
Other parents complained too.
A female student from the early 1990s, who asked not to be named, told CBC that after Jabbour gave her a shoulder rub, her father confronted the band teacher and warned him not to touch her again.
A male student, who asked not to be named, told CBC he wrote up 10 pages of notes in the early 1990s, and with a parent, met with Jabbour and school officials to complain about the teacher's sexual comments and angry outbursts. The student said at that meeting Jabbour cried and felt his actions and comments had been misinterpreted.
And another student from the early 2000s, who also asked not to be named, said she quit band in Grade 11 because she was uncomfortable with Jabbour's frequent hugs and other touches. She said her mother called Jabbour and told him not to touch her again, and also called school officials to complain.
CBC has direct information of only four complaints of inappropriate behaviour being reported to four different principals. Those incidents are separate from the criminal complaints that went to court.
CBC was able to reach three former principals from Colonel Gray, who all said any complaints they received were not sexual in nature. Two of the three said the complaints about Jabbour were no more frequent or serious than the ones they got about other teachers.
At Jabbour's sentencing hearing, court heard that police had copies of some written complaints parents made about Jabbour. CBC asked the Education Department for records of all complaints made but was refused.
CBC has filed a freedom of information request for those records and is awaiting response.
Calls for review
Now the students and others are asking — why didn't someone put a stop to Jabbour's behaviour years earlier?
They want an investigation into what was known about Jabbour's inappropriate behaviour over his 46-year teaching career: whether complaints were fully investigated, and whether Jabbour was disciplined. They also want to know what is being done to protect students from similar situations in the future — not just at Colonel Gray but across the province.
"I would like to see the school system address it publicly," said Michelle Jay of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women, who along with Women's Network P.E.I. and the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, first called on the P.E.I. government to do the review a year ago. They're still waiting for a response.
"To say 'We learned from this. This was a bad thing that happened for 30 years, we don't want that happening again, and here's what we're going to try to put in place as protocols and procedures, so that it doesn't happen again.' I think that would send a huge message to students that they're important," said Jay.
Jillian Kilfoil of the Women's Network P.E.I. agrees.
"We definitely would like to see the province take the lead on a strategy to fill gaps that the Jabbour case clearly highlighted," she said.
When contacted by CBC, the Public Schools Branch deferred to the Department of Education for comment.
CBC made repeated requests to the department for an interview with the education minister. Instead, the department responded with a statement.
"As public expectations for the safety of our children continue to increase, P.E.I. education authorities are taking additional steps to ensure that Island schools are safe and caring places to learn and work," it reads.
The statement said the policies of the Public Schools Branch were revised in 2018, "including procedures to address inappropriate behaviours such as bullying, harassment and abuse." It said in the past year PSB staff had been trained on documenting, reporting and responding to allegations against a student or a staff member.
The new revised policy says if a student feels their teacher is acting inappropriately they should report it to a teacher or principal. It says the principal must document it and that if the conduct is serious enough, or suspected sexual abuse, the principal will notify the director of student services, and police will be called in.
The province did not explain what parts, if any, of previously existing policy had changed.
There was no mention in the statement of a review of the Jabbour case.