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Day 4 of the provincial court trial of elementary school principal Robin McGrath saw a new witness called to the stand: the school’s guidance counsellor, whose testimony had her — and at least one other person in the courtroom — in tears.
The woman said by the time a student assistant at the school came to her office to speak privately with her in June 2018, she knew exactly what it was going to be about.
“She was very upset and said she had something she couldn’t keep to herself any longer,” the guidance counsellor testified. “I know what she was referring to.”
“How did you know what she was referring to?” asked prosecutor Shawn Patten.
“Because I was going through the same thing,” the woman replied.
Over the next hour the counsellor detailed incidents in which she said she had witnessed McGrath angry, red-faced and with veins popping on his neck, disciplining children with special needs over the course of the school year by grabbing them by the face, stepping on their hands, kneeing them in the back, pinching their ears, throwing them in the washroom and picking up the chair in which they were sitting and slamming it to the ground.
McGrath is charged with four counts of assault and one count of uttering threats against students at an elementary school in Conception Bay South in 2017 and 2018.
The guidance counsellor said she had witnessed McGrath’s actions escalate from verbal to physical.
“He’d say things like, ‘Get up, you’re not getting over my f—king time, I’m not sending you f—king home,” the woman said. It progressed, she told the court, to McGrath picking a child up and throwing him into a chair or dragging him into the washroom.
“Robin was so angry at a boy who was helpless, who was born with a brain that was unable to regulate these situations, and Robin would be screaming at him like he was a bad kid,” she testified.
The woman told the court of an incident in which McGrath had stepped on a developmentally delayed child’s hand to try and get him to get up off the floor. When that didn’t work, he knelt into the child’s back, she said.
“At the same time Mr. McGrath would have his veins very pronounced and there was an anger behind it,” the guidance counsellor said. “(The child) would say “ouch” or “ow”… any other child would just have screamed for help but he had limited language. He couldn’t ask for help but he was looking at us.”
The situation ended after McGrath carried the boy under the arms to the bathroom and threw him in, directing a student assistant to help the child from there.
McGrath screaming into children’s faces “just seemed the norm,” the woman testified, telling the court of times she said she witnessed the principal grabbing students’ cheeks with two hands and bringing his face close to theirs, yelling at them over inappropriate behaviour. Other times McGrath would be disciplining a child in his office when he’d pick up the chair they were sitting on and slam it to the ground, she said.
One time McGrath called a very young child to his office to be disciplined and the guidance counsellor went with him.
“(McGrath) walked over and pinched his ear right here, really tight,” the woman testified. The child looked at her and called her name, she said. “I said, Robin, that’s enough. He was just a little person.”
One of the children McGrath grabbed by the face was a special needs child with a history of trauma who often exhibited problematic behaviour, the guidance counsellor testified.
“It was dealt with not from a care perspective; it was dealt with from a manipulative (perspective) and meanness and control of power. And that never works,” she added, looking at McGrath. “Twenty-five years I’ve been a guidance counsellor and that doesn’t work.”
The woman’s testimony so far has echoed that of two other employees at the school who have testified: a student assistant and an instructional resource teacher, who described incidents of McGrath grabbing children’s cheeks and shouting, lifting up and slamming down their chairs and stepping on their hand. The teacher told the court of a time she said McGrath had dragged a child into the washroom and doused him in cold water from the shower until he vomited.
The assistant told the court about a drawing her student had made, depicting himself as a superhero pushing a “bad guy” – whom he said was the principal — off a building.
Another witness, a substitute teacher who worked at the school for six weeks at the beginning of the year, testified she had witnessed McGrath hold a pair of scissors to the same child after the boy pulled the wires out of a classroom smartboard. McGrath told the child, “If you do that again I’ll chop your fingers off,” the teacher said. She didn’t believe McGrath was serious and never reported the incident, she told the court.
The guidance counsellor has not yet offered an explanation as to why she hadn’t reported the allegations to the school district until June if she witnessed McGrath assaulting children as early as November.
When asked for the same explanation from defence lawyer Tom Johnson earlier in the week, the instructional resource teacher said McGrath had threatened and intimidated her and she was too terrified to make a report.
Johnson and co-counsel Ian Patey have suggested during their cross examinations of the witnesses that the incidents had not taken place the way they presented them, and McGrath had acted appropriately in disciplining the children, many of whom were often noted to respond positively to a stern male voice. Some of the children needed assistance to focus or understand in conversations, the lawyers have noted, while others had responded in the past to massage or light pressure techniques.
The defence lawyers have asked questions about alliances and disputes amongst staff at the school and suggested the student assistant’s testimony had been tainted by a discussion she had with one of the other witnesses before she made her complaint.
The guidance counsellor will continue providing her evidence today.
- Principal threatened a child with scissors, grabbed students' faces, witnesses tell the court in St. John's
- ‘I have to live with that forever,’ tearful teacher tells St. John's court at trial of principal accused of assaulting kids
- Teacher tells court she was afraid of elementary principal accused of assaulting, threatening students