TORONTO—Frustration and anger boiled over outside a city courtroom Tuesday among parents and friends of 16 teens charged in the alleged sexual assault and harassment of a 16-year-old girl that spanned a year-a-half.
The highly charged atmosphere included suggestions by some that race is a factor in the case. All 16 of the accused are black and the alleged victim is white. Fifteen of the accused were released on bail Tuesday, and one other teen was previously granted bail after his arrest last week.
A handful of vocal parents blasted police and school officials for the arrests, suggesting some students were unfairly viewed as troublemakers.
“Why was the rest of the kids who were arrested black? Is this a racist thing, what is it? Is it a bias?” said the mother of a 16-year-old.
“They (the school) don’t want them there because they waste time and run in the hallways.”
A total of 14 boys and two girls stand accused of harassing the 16-year-old, who came forward last week with allegations of sexual assault, assault, forcible confinement and uttering threats.
The incidents, most of which police said occurred on school property, allegedly began during the second or third week of school last year.
Investigators have alleged the victim was approached by a male student last month and forced into a stairwell, then sexually assaulted. They alleged she was then forced into a washroom where the assault continued.
Outside the overflowing courtroom, about 40 parents, friends and supporters denounced the alleged victim and the charges.
The mother of another charged teen accused police of stereotyping black youths in a pocket of the city plagued by a wave of gang violence in recent months.
“They (the police) want to get them in the system,” she shouted in the hallway as police and lawyers passed.
Some supporters questioned the validity of the charges as a judge ordered the teens to stay away from the alleged victim and James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School, where many of the assaults allegedly took place.
Emotions at the courthouse were strong with one outburst from the public gallery.
“They aren’t prisoners,” one person said about the accused in a voice heard throughout the courtroom.
Several of the teens were still wearing the white dress shirts of their school’s uniform as they were led into the courtroom shackled to each other.
The teens were released into house arrest on $1,500 bail except one boy, who was released on $2,000 bail.
They can leave home only under escort to attend school once the district Catholic school board can find one in which to place them.
All are forbidden from having cellphones, pagers, beepers or using the Internet to contact one another.
Defence lawyer Irene Theletritis said the nature of the allegations has drawn strong emotions from everyone involved.
“Because the allegations were of a sexual and criminal nature it drew a spark that it otherwise wouldn’t,” Theletritis said outside court.
“Emotions were running high, usually you don’t see that sort of thing.”
Education Minister Gerard Kennedy will be at another Toronto school Wednesday to announce what he’s calling “serious” measures to prevent bullying in the province’s schools.
Earlier this week, Kennedy suggested that training teachers and students how to be aware of and stop bullying will help prevent such incidents.
Samantha Tavares, student council president at the accused’s school, said she hoped students would welcome the alleged victim if she chose to return.
“If the tables were turned, I’m sure that everyone, if they came back to the school, they’d want to feel comfortable and they’d want to put this all behind them,” Tavares said.
She said she didn’t feel comfortable answering whether there were feelings of racial tension and division among students.
But Mary Jo Deighan, spokeswoman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said she did not believe that the majority of students sensed a racial division at the ethnically diverse school.
“Obviously, within any multicultural school, we need to be sensitive to all of that and we need to be sensitive to address it,” she said.
“I’ve had students come in in pairs and it doesn’t matter what race they are, they’re hanging out together as groups.”
But other students said they were angry over what they called the unjust targeting of their friends.
The accused are to return to court Nov. 25.
Sixteen high school students have been charged after a 16-year-old girl told police she was sexually assaulted in a case of extreme bullying that went on for more than a year.
The victim, a student at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic high school in the Keele St.-Finch Ave. W. area of Toronto, was allegedly forced by male students to commit sexual acts in stairwells and washrooms, both inside the school and in a neighbouring fast-food restaurant.
After 14 months of enduring the alleged abuse, the girl broke her silence last week and told a teacher, who then notified police. A string of charges, including sexual assault, were laid against two male teens, aged 17 and 15, last week.
Yesterday, plainclothes officers stepped up their efforts and went to the school where they arrested two female students and 12 male students—two of whom are adults. Students were led away in handcuffs and taken to 31 Division where they were in custody last night. The males were charged with criminal harassment; the two females with threatening bodily harm. While the names of the accused youths cannot be released, police have not identified the two adults.
At a news conference yesterday, police said the accused do not have any gang ties, although some are known to police.
The incidents are alleged to have started during the second or third week of school last year. Officers would not say how many times the victim was abused, but said that throughout the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years, several boys had approached her repeatedly to demand sexual favours.
On one occasion last month, police said, she was approached by the 17-year-old who allegedly forced her into the school stairwell and sexually assaulted her. He then forced her to go a second-floor washroom where he is alleged to have continued sexually assaulting her.
On another occasion in September, police said the girl was followed to the basement washroom of a fast food restaurant by the 15-year-old, who locked the door. He was allegedly demanding sexual favours from her when a restaurant employee arrived.
Despite reports from students that the accused are innocent and have been unfairly targeted because they are black and the girl is white, Insp. Tom McIlhone told reporters that race played no part in the arrests.
Police said yesterday they were examining videotapes taken from cameras in the school’s hallways and were still interviewing the girl’s friends.
The girl didn’t come forward sooner because of “fear and retaliation,” said McIlhone. He went on to say that the girl was not in school yesterday when the arrests were made but hoped to return.
“She feels it’s her right and by not attending back at the school she is victimized again,” he said.
But last night, while waiting to speak with officers at 31 Division, the mother of a 16-year-old boy charged with criminal harassment said it was her son who has been victimized.
“I never knew that anything like this is going on. I’m like totally in shock,” said the 31-year-old woman, who is also related to one of the girls charged. “There’s no question in my heart that this is totally false. My son has had nothing to do with this.”
The North York high school has hired an extra vice-principal, four extra hall monitors and called a parent meeting scheduled for tomorrow to discuss student safety. But what may help even more is to give teachers more training in how to spot the signs of students suffering from sexual harassment, said education director Kevin Kobus of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
While extra supervision should bolster safety in a school where Kobus said he believes gangs are active, he also said teachers may need help recognizing signs of distress among students.
“Are all our staff properly prepared to identify situations that could in fact be harassment or assault? I’m not convinced of that at this stage,” said Kobus. While he called the charges “very, very disturbing,” he said the sexual harassment policy “is only as good as the enforcement.”
“We want students to know that the environment is safe enough that they can come forward comfortably and get the support they need so the policy (against sexual harassment) can be enforced.”
Police yesterday met with staff at the school to discuss safety, said Kobus, “and one of the main purposes is to assist staff in identifying those students who are in need and who may not necessarily have come forward in the past.”
Although school officials and some students say gangs and threatening behaviour is not widespread, teachers raised alarm bells about a group of students at least a month ago.
“There had been a group of students—maybe as many as 20—showing a flagrant disrespect for authority,” said Kathleen Gardiner, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. “Sometimes they would hang around the halls disrupting things so other people couldn’t learn. There seemed to be a series of incidents on an almost daily basis.”
But another Catholic school trustee said James Cardinal McGuigan has a reputation that drives students to other nearby schools. McGuigan had 50 people at a recent open house; St. Basil-the-Great, about 4 kilometres away, had about 750, said Sal Piccininni.
“I’m not surprised at this coming out of any school in the northwest quadrant (of the board). When I walk into a school and see a kid wearing a rosary I understand what that means,” he said, referring to the coloured rosaries worn by gang members.
The 14 students arrested yesterday are scheduled to appear in court this morning.