Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

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No more 'boys will be boys'
Royal St. George's isn't the only private school expelling students as elite institutions crack down on misbehaviour

Saturday, May 7, 2005

When she received a pornographic message on her office voice mail, the mother was more than a little taken aback. Then came the biggest shock of all, when she realized that the voice belonged to one of her teenaged son's classmates at Greenwood College, an elite Toronto private school.

With the smoking-gun recording in their possession, Greenwood administrators dispensed instant justice, and the Grade 9 boy was expelled, joining a growing number of private-school students who have found themselves persona non grata for incidents that a few years ago would have garnered a slap on the wrist.

Although Ontario private schools don't keep statistics, insiders say the elite facilities are expelling more students now than ever before. Students have been kicked out for hacking into school computers, selling drugs, bringing a weapon to school, dealing in counterfeit money and pasting a female teacher's head on a Playboy centerfold.

Most expulsions have gone unnoticed outside the stately corridors of the private institutions, but this week, three Grade 10 students at Royal St. George's College, a boys school in the Annex, were expelled after they posted anti-Semitic messages on a website and responded to a complaint by a student at Branksome Hall girls school by calling her a "hooknosed parasite" who "should be thrown into an oven with the rest of them." Four other students were suspended.

"The numbers have definitely gone up," according to Susan Hazell of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools. She says she has heard of more than a dozen expulsions at private schools in the past year alone.

Observers believe the expulsions make it clear that the days of turning a blind eye to the high jinks of wealthy children are over. "The bar has been raised," says David Thompson, principal of Greenwood College at Davisville and Mount Pleasant. "Parents expect high standards and so do we."

Mr. Thompson says schools have reconsidered their position on incidents such as the one involving the Royal St. George's students. "Ten years ago, some of these students might have gotten a talking-to and a warning," he says. "The days of letting it slide are over. Now, there are real consequences."

In years past, the sons and daughters of Canada's moneyed elite could often get a free pass from their schools. When the son of one of Canada's best-known and most powerful business executives was caught up in a cheating scandal at Upper Canada College in the 1980s, for example, nothing was done, former principal Patrick Johnson told author James Fitzgerald for the book Old Boys, which documents the school through the eyes of former students. The boy's father was a member of the school's board of governors.

Ironically, one of the boys caught up in the St. George's case also has a father who serves on his school's board of governors. Another is the son of a well-known company owner who lives on one of the most exclusive streets in Rosedale and sits on the board of several hospitals and Canadian corporations.

But wealth and connections have provided no dispensation for the Royal St. George's students. Many attribute this new, hard-line approach to the ongoing scandal that has gripped UCC since 2001, when former teacher Douglas Brown was charged with sexually assaulting young students.

Between Mr. Brown's arrest and conviction (which he is currently appealing), there were a series of damaging media revelations that included a long series of hushed-up transgressions, including the sexual assault of a student by a teacher who was allowed to quietly leave the school and continue teaching elsewhere.

Mr. Fitzgerald says the UCC scandal recalibrated the thinking of private-school administrators. "It was a watershed moment," he says. "Nobody wanted to be put in the position that UCC had been."

And when the transgressions spill onto the Internet, it's difficult for the school to remain private. Janet Sailian, director of communications at Branksome Hall, says the Royal St. George's case crystallizes the problems posed by the on-line age: "The Web has changed everything," she says. "Things go worldwide in seconds. The response to the problem has to be immediate too."

Heinz Klatt, a former school psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, says schools are responding to a changed environment. "Principals of private schools are under pressure from parents" to do something immediately, he says, referring to the Royal St. George's incident. "They're not masters of their own school." Royal St. George's principal, Hal Hannaford, says the school's rapid, decisive response to the website postings is based on ethics, but he agrees that perception was also important: "We've learned that you can't hide. You have to deal with things and be upfront about what you're doing.

"We dove into this thing. We felt there was a moral and ethical responsibility," he says. "We believe that the behaviour warrants the consequences."

The mother of a former Royal St. George's student who was suspended last year after he was caught buying liquor on a class trip says she supported the rigorous approach to her son's behavioural lapse. "These are kids with money and connections," says the woman, who asked not to be named. "They have to learn that privilege doesn't mean a licence to do whatever you want."

Another parent, the father of two former Royal St. George's students who also spoke on condition of anonymity, echoes her sentiments: "There are kids who think that no matter what they do, mommy and daddy will bail them out. You have to give them a message."

The father says the UCC scandal has made schools keenly aware of the need to do things by the book. "In the old days, they played it loose. Now, they shoot it straight up the fairway. Nobody wants to end up in the rough."