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Guidance counsellor describes life of turmoil and fear after allegedly witnessing principal assault students

St. John’s Provincial Court Judge David Orr has heard a full week of testimony in the trial of elementary school principal Robin McGrath, seen here sitting behind his lawyers, Ian Patey (left) and Tom Johnson in the courtroom Friday. McGrath is facing multiple charges of assaulting and threatening children with special needs in 2017 and 2018.
St. John’s Provincial Court Judge David Orr has heard a full week of testimony in the trial of elementary school principal Robin McGrath, seen here sitting behind his lawyers, Ian Patey (left) and Tom Johnson in the courtroom Friday. McGrath is facing multiple charges of assaulting and threatening children with special needs in 2017 and 2018.

Sitting with her back to the accused, the guidance counsellor leaned forward and grasped the sides of the chair ahead of her, then took a deep breath.

“He’s yelling at him and screaming in his face,” she told the courtroom, describing an incident she said she witnessed in 2017 involving elementary school principal Robin McGrath and a young child with special needs.

McGrath’s lawyers had asked the guidance counsellor to use a chair to demonstrate what she alleges McGrath did to the student one day while disciplining him in his office.

The child had been sitting on a chair in front of McGrath, the counsellor testified, and McGrath had grabbed the boy’s face and pinched his ear tightly, causing the child to ask her for help.

After a significant pause, the woman lifted the chair into the air then slammed it back to the floor, making a loud bang in the courtroom.

“He picked up the chair and he did that,” she said, crying.

Asked to repeat the gesture, she did, raising the chair to about the same three-foot height before bringing it sharply to the floor.

The woman is the fourth witness called by the Crown to testify at the trial of McGrath, who is charged with four counts of assault and one count of uttering threats against elementary school students in Conception Bay South.

Each of the witnesses, all of whom worked at the school during the 2017-2018 school year, described incidents of McGrath having acted violently or making threatening remarks towards children with special needs.

The guidance counsellor is the second of the women to tell the court through tears they had been aware of the abuse for months before they reported it, lamenting how they kept quiet out of fear of McGrath, whom they allege had threatened them.

“It was clearly, clearly stated to me that no one gets over his time and that anyone that f--ks with (him) will not come out on top,” she said, tearfully. “He gave me — he showed me, actually — evidence of that.”

The woman said McGrath had been due to undergo a regular evaluation by the school district that year but had told her it wouldn’t be happening and that Newfoundland and Labrador Eastern School District CEO Tony Stack “has my back.”

“Guess what,” the woman testified. “He wasn’t evaluated. That’s unheard of.”

When asked by prosecutor Shawn Patten if she could explain why she hadn’t reported McGrath to the school board or the police until the end of the school year, the guidance counsellor said it was a good question.

“I was scared,” she explained, describing her life as one of “daily turmoil.” “I was scared that no one would believe me. I was scared that I would lose my job …. because no one was going to believe me, even though I had a really good reputation, over Mr. McGrath who was principal of the year one year and who told me that Tony Stack, our CEO, had his back. That’s why I did not do the right thing. When you have fear in your heart and soul, it affects your rational thinking.”

Sitting near the back of the courtroom, the mother of the child in question cried as the counsellor spoke.

McGrath was named one of the country’s top principals in 2013, when he was working at a school in Holyrood, and described by the school board at that time as a “shining example of the dedicated individuals” it employed.

The guidance counsellor cried at numerous points in her testimony when she said she should have spoken up sooner but never reported the allegations until a student assistant, who testified earlier this week, came forward with concerns.

“The strength she showed … she was the courageous one,” the counsellor said.

“It’s not a matter of strength and courage though, is it? It’s a matter of duty,” replied defence lawyer Tom Johnson.

“Sometimes they don’t go hand in hand,” the woman replied. “I wish they did.”

Johnson said McGrath is prepared to testify he didn’t slam the boy’s chair nor grab his face or pinch his ear, and that the guidance counsellor had never been present in his office during any of his interactions with the child.

“That is completely false, that’s what I say,” the woman responded.

Witnesses have detailed incidents in which they say they saw McGrath yelling and swearing at children, stepping on a child’s hand in an effort to force him up off the floor, grabbing children’s faces, picking up and slamming down chairs in which they were sitting, threatening a child with scissors and dousing a child in cold water as a behaviour deterrent.

McGrath’s lawyers have suggested the alleged incidents either never happened or McGrath’s use of appropriate behaviour modification techniques with the children had been misinterpreted.

The guidance counsellor said she felt sick going to school every day that year and had begun attempting to direct the kids away from the principal when issues arose by bringing them to her office for some therapeutic activities instead.

Johnson pointed out the woman had not mentioned the incident she demonstrated for the court when she made her complaint to the school district, though she did disclose them to the police days later.

“It’s unfortunate he doesn’t remember something so horrendous he did with his own hands,” the guidance counsellor said of McGrath.

“One might ponder how you could leave it out in a formal complaint,” replied Johnson.

The woman said she had forgotten to include the incidents among the numerous other ones she had reported in her written complaint but had found herself better able to organize recollections when answering pointed questions from RNC investigators.

The guidance counsellor and the defence lawyer both appeared to grow exasperated at times as the cross-examination continued with Johnson questioning the woman on details regarding dates, positioning of the chairs in McGrath’s office, emails she had sent to staff regarding programming and documentation for students with special needs. Johnson pointed to inconsistencies between the woman’s statement to police and her testimony in court.

“My exact patterns of words, two-and-a-half years later?” the guidance counsellor asked. “Ask me exactly and specifically about (the child’s) face when his ear was being pinched or his cheeks were being pushed together. Ask me about when he was on the chair and the chair got slammed down. I specifically, specifically, remember that. But what came out of my mouth exactly? This is what you’re questioning me on?”

McGrath’s trial is scheduled to resume before Provincial Court Judge David Orr on Monday and is expected to last another week.

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