Disturbing new allegations surface in lawsuit against province’s school system for deaf and blind; Minister Lecce refuses to step in
While the Ontario government continues to ignore a litany of complaints related to abuse, mismanagement and neglect within the Provincial Demonstrations School Branch (PDSB)—the province’s schools responsible for educating deaf and blind children—disturbing new allegations in an ongoing lawsuit are placing further pressure on the Ministry of Education to finally step in to fix the troubled board.
Last year, Jane, a student with the PDSB, and her family filed a damning lawsuit against the board and the Ontario government after she allegedly endured years of bullying and abuse at the hands of students and negligence by those in senior administrative positions responsible for keeping her safe.
Jane’s disturbing treatment at E.C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton was detailed in an October investigation by The Pointer, which outlined the repeated assaults she experienced at the hands of other students, leading to a traumatic brain injury, and the alleged dismissal of ongoing complaints from her parents by senior leaders at the school. Jane’s lawsuit alleges the mismanagement and lack of care provided to her led to her not receiving the proper medical care and assessments she desperately needed, which could have identified her learning disabilities and other challenges that were compounded by the abuse much sooner. If these assessments had been completed, Jane would have been spared years of torment, the statement of claim alleges, possibly preventing repeated suicide attempts, including an incident where Jane hallucinated in class, seeing people who were not there, screaming at her to kill herself.
The lack of care provided to address Jane’s medical needs form a large part of the Statement of Claim the family filed last year. The detailed court filing lays out her numerous health conditions, which include, cerebral palsy, auditory neuropathy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, development coordination disorder and a learning disability.
The Ontario government, in a statement of defence, denies the allegations.
In an amended statement of claim filed last month, Jane and her parents have added yet another allegation to the list, that school administrators failed to take all the proper steps, or notify her parents, when partially nude images of Jane, who was a minor at the time, were found on the device of another student.
Jane’s name has been changed and The Pointer is not revealing the names of her parents to protect her identity.
The amendment states in early March 2019, a vice-principal at E.C. Drury was made aware that a student was showing an image of Jane with her shirt pulled up to “one or more other students at the school”.
“Student E was claiming, when showing the image, that he had dared Jane to take the image of herself and that when she had refused, he had ‘beat her up’ in order to force her to do so,” the statement of claim reads.
The iPad containing the image was confiscated from the student and plans were made by administrators to address the issue with the student’s parents.
Jane’s parents, however, were never told of the incident. This was a violation of policy.
“The defendants took no further steps to prevent the possession or circulation of the images of Jane despite such acts constituting criminal offences,” the statement of claims reads. “They never informed Jane’s parents, the Halton Police Service or the Children’s Aid Society of the circumstances of the obtaining or sharing of the images so as to ensure that further possession or sharing of the images were prevented and that Jane was otherwise protected.”
In Canada, the sharing of explicit images between those under the age of 18 is illegal under the Criminal Code, even if the sharing is consensual. While this technically qualifies as child pornography, when the sharing is consensual, it rarely leads to criminal charges. According to the amended statement of claim, the sharing of Jane’s partially nude images was non-consensual.
The Province declined to address the incident noting “we cannot comment on individual cases” and would not comment on the amendments to the statement of claim as the allegations are now before the courts.
“Our expectation is that all staff uphold their responsibility to protect students and those staff who do not are held to account,” a spokesperson said.
According to the Ministry, an updated incident reporting system was implemented at the PDSB in 2023, which requires parent notification within 24 hours of a “serious incident”.
The spokesperson did not explain why Jane’s parents were not notified of this incident; a clear violation of PDSB policy. It’s unclear whether senior administrators at the school, including Cindy Smith, who is named in Jane’s lawsuit and was principal of the school at the time, faced any disciplinary action for violating school policies.
The PDSB lacks basic online reporting mechanisms for serious incidents, despite the Ministry of Education’s mandate that school boards across the province had to have such an online reporting tool in place by the 2018-2019 school year.
"This is one of the main reasons that those who harmed our daughter while working as educators for the Province were able to do so,” Jane’s father previously told The Pointer. “We have substantial evidence that Jeanne Leonard (former superintendent) and Cindy Smith hid incident reports from us and forged at least one incident report and its associated fact-finding documents. This would never have happened if these Incident Reports had a digital trail."
The Province denies this claim in its Statement of Defence. The Ministry claims the reporting mechanisms in place at the PDSB meet provincial legislation requirements.
“PDSB has a robust manual incident reporting process in place that meets legislative, regulatory and other reporting requirements,” a ministry spokesperson previously told The Pointer.
In a petition to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, which garnered over 2,600 signatures online, Jane and her family called for the immediate creation of online reporting mechanisms as well as a systemic shift to create elected trustees for the Provincial Demonstrations School Branch as a pathway to increased accountability for administrators.
“There are two million hearing students in Ontario who are all protected from mistreatment at school via Elected Boards of Trustees and digital accountability for Incident Reporting. Incomprehensibly, Ontario’s Deaf students are not, and this has resulted in devastating harm to many Deaf Canadians. Our daughter's story proves that nothing has changed,” the petition reads.
It’s unclear why Minister Lecce refuses to take action in this situation—he did not respond to questions from The Pointer—when he has taken action in the past to address systemic issues within other school boards in Ontario.
The Ministry of Education spokesperson acknowledged that if explicit images are found on a student’s device this “could be considered” a breach of the Board’s Code of Conduct. The Province did not say whether any investigation of this incident or these policy violations was completed.
The rise in sharing of intimate images among young people due to the proliferation of smartphones and apps like Snapchat, has led to a corresponding increase in cases of “revenge porn”, where nude images shared during a relationship are either exposed to others when the relationship ends, or in the worst case scenario, posted online for the world to see, where the spread can be quick and impossible to contain.
Jane’s parents did not comment further on the incident, only telling The Pointer the information came to them through the discovery process in the lawsuit.
Similar incidents involving the sharing of non-consensual images have led to tragedies across Canada.
In 2013, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons hung herself at her parent’s home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia two-years after photos and video depicting her rape by four teenage boys spread throughout her school.
A year before that, Amanda Todd hung herself at her parent’s home in Port Coquitlam, B.C. while being blackmailed by a man online after sending him nude photos of herself which he threatened to spread to others. She was 15. In October 2022, 43-year-old Aydin Coban was sentenced to 13 years in prison for actions that led to Todd’s death.
The Ministry spokesperson acknowledged that PDSB staff and administrators are provided training on matters related to anti-sex trafficking, but a review of the associated protocol by The Pointer found no mention of how to handle potential cases of revenge porn, or educating students about the dangers of sharing explicit images or “sexting”.
The lack of information around set protocols is especially concerning as studies have shown that deaf and blind children are 50 percent more likely to become victims of sexual abuse compared to hearing children.
“Jane and Jane’s Parents were deprived by the defendants of the opportunity to deal with the obtaining, possession and sharing of the images in a manner that ensured that Jane was safe and had support to address this traumatic event,” the amended statement of claim reads.
This is only the latest in a long line of issues within the PDSB which were detailed in an October investigation by The Pointer.
According to multiple sources, including top union officials and parents of children within the Board; and documents from lawyers and teachers, inspection logs from the Ontario government as well as independent studies into the general treatment of children with disabilities across Canada, the Board has been underfunded, understaffed and plagued with allegations of mental, physical and emotional abuse of both students and staff for years.
Two class action lawsuits against the PDSB and Ontario government over the last decade have described disturbing levels of harm to the young students in the care of the PDSB. A 2016 lawsuit detailed how teachers approached students with “contempt, prejudice, indifference and abuse” and alleged ongoing sexual, physical and emotional abuse of students by their peers, teachers and counsellors.
Jane’s parents allege their daughter Jane suffered chronic abuse while attending E.C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton.
The Government of Ontario has paid out $23 million in taxpayer funds to settle these lawsuits and avoid any admission of wrongdoing. No substantial review of the numerous allegations has been completed and no improved accountability mechanisms have been put in place by the Province following these lawsuits.
The teachers’ union representing staff in this niche educational environment has long been demanding reforms, but has been dismissed by senior administrators and the Ministry of Education.
The allegations are denied by the Province and senior PDSB administrators in the Statement of Defence.
“Our government’s priority is ensuring the safety of children, particularly the most exceptional children within our care. We take that duty very seriously,” a spokesperson stated.
Despite this claim, Education Minister Stephen Lecce refuses to explain why he will not step in to address the litany of issues within the board. It raises questions about how seriously Lecce takes the role of the Province in keeping children safe in the schools under his jurisdiction.
As the Canadian Centre for Child Protection explains:
“Pursuant to the Canadian Constitution, provinces and territories are legally responsible for education systems and the children who, by law, are obligated to attend school. The law defines the relationship between teachers and students as in loco parentis or 'like that of a parent.' Via statute, provinces have created school boards, teachers’ colleges, registrar functions, and provincial committees to carry out these related responsibilities on their behalf. Because of this, it is ultimately the provinces that are responsible to ensure children are safe in schools.”
Repeated pleas for assistance from Jane’s parents, supported by evidence of the wrongdoing done to their daughter, as well as a call to review the ongoing issues within the PDSB sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce have been ignored. A response sent to the family from Assistant Deputy Minister of Education Claudine Munroe states “we disagree with your characterization of the actions taken by our staff in support of your daughter.”
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