St. Michael’s College School is putting a sexual assault scandal in the rearview mirror as it works to protect its students from future incidents. Photo by Michael Swan

St. Mike’s recommits to protecting students

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  • November 12, 2021

With the book being closed on the court cases involving seven students involved in a highly-publicized hazing and sexual assault at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School, the prestigious Catholic private school says it remains “deeply committed” to measures put in place to make sure such an incident doesn’t occur again.

A former St. Mike’s student athlete was found guilty of sexually assaulting another teen and sentenced to two years’ probation earlier this month, three years after media reports of a disturbing video prompted a police investigation into a locker room sexual assault involving the junior football team. The case was the last to conclude in the criminal proceedings against seven students at the school which sparked a wider conversation about the culture of violence in sport.

Among the accused, three pleaded guilty to sexual assault with a weapon and assault with a weapon and were sentenced to two years of probation. One also pleaded guilty to making child pornography for recording one of the sex assaults. Another received a two-year probationary sentence after pleading guilty. Charges against two others were withdrawn.

“The school remains deeply committed to the ongoing adoption of concrete measures to ensure a similar incident does not happen again,” said school president Fr. Andrew Leung in a statement. “The positive steps already taken in this regard have been felt across our school community and for the better.”

Leung said the school would not be commenting further.

The school was quick to take action when the assault became known. It struck a committee with school stakeholders to examine the culture at St. Mike’s and published a 33-page document outlining its strategy for bullying prevention and intervention. Among its suggestions for change was an approach that encourages the hiring of alumni teachers with experience at other education institutions than St. Mike’s and the hiring of more women as teachers, staff and in leadership roles.

Questions of how such behaviour could take place at the school extended not only to the alleged abusive behaviour, but to the apparent observation, without intervention, of this abuse by other students and to the circulation and viewing of videos of the assault on social media. While the report questioned whether the school’s traditions, practices and values contributed to the behaviour, it ultimately concluded that “such behaviour was fundamentally inconsistent with — indeed, repugnant to — Catholic values, expressed in the school’s motto, ‘Teach me Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge.’ ”

The St. Mike’s case comes to a close just as a slew of high-profile abuse cases have come to the forefront. In October, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned after detailed e-mails emerged in which he had made homophobic and misogynistic remarks, following an earlier report of a racist statement about the head of the players union. And hockey player Kyle Beach recently took part in an emotional interview where he revealed himself as the “John Doe” named in a sexual assault lawsuit against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Marge Holman, a sport management professor at the University of Windsor, says change only comes with a complete review and restructuring of the system that keeps these dynamics alive. Apologies from sports leagues and treating cases like that at St. Michael’s as a one-off, in a system that otherwise works well, fails to address the root of the issue.

“It’s a structural issue,” said Holman. “It’s not bad people, it’s a bad process. There are some bad people and what they do is they get in there and they expose the worst of the structure that isn’t working. If you want to change the outcome that you’re getting, which is what they’re apologizing for in the Kyle Beach case and what happened at St. Mike’s, if you use the same process, you’re not going to change the outcome. You’ve got to look at the big picture, not just a little piece of it.”

Stacy L Lorenz, a professor in physical education and history in the department of social sciences at the University of Alberta, has been talking about this a lot with his students in recent weeks. He’s written academically about violence as it relates to hockey in particular and within the broader definitions of sport-related violence. He says that while these do relate to wide societal issues, it’s important to identify them as features of sport culture that encourage these toxic behaviours.

“I find sport sociologist Michael Messner’s insights to be really valuable where he talks about male athlete peer groups being related to violence,” said Lorenz.  “At the centre of their involvement in sport is a lack of empathy for men, a lack of empathy for women and a lack of empathy for their own body. In that sort of environment, you learn that other men are not your friends in that hot house of competition and you’re all about putting them down and defeating them.

“You learn in that culture that women are not important and don’t really count except as objects. You actually learn that your own body is a machine and is something that if you’re injured you play through it. You don’t even respect your own body.”

The culture of conformity and the importance of the team “sticking together” unfortunately often means there is also a culture of silence when it comes to abuse. While Lorenz acknowledges strides forward have been made particularly as it relates to awareness of the issues, he’s cautious not to overstate that progress.

The push for change is not an attack on sport but an expression of a deep care, appreciation and acknowledgement of the great value it brings to society. Creating an environment where athletes, coaches and people working in all aspects of sport can thrive means facing the ugly truth of the violent culture that continues to be perpetuated.

“We need to recognize that this kind of exploitation, abuse and differences in power are right at the heart of sport culture,” said Lorenz. “If we first can acknowledge that, it means that we can work on genuinely trying to fix it.”

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