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Teacher tells court she was afraid of elementary principal accused of assaulting, threatening students

Elementary school principal Robin McGrath awaits the resumption of his trial in Provincial Court in St. John's after the lunch break Monday. McGrath has pleaded not guilty to charges of assaulting and threatening students.
Elementary school principal Robin McGrath awaits the resumption of his trial in provincial court in St. John's after the lunch break Monday. McGrath has pleaded not guilty to charges of assaulting and threatening students. - Tara Bradbury

Graphic content warning: this article contains subject matter which some readers may find disturbing.

New to the Conception Bay South elementary school at which she was working, a special needs teacher says the first time she got a bad feeling about the way the principal interacted with one of her students was when she witnessed him drag the child out of his parents’ car.

The child would often resist going inside the school in the mornings, the teacher said Monday, and principal Robin McGrath would physically bring him in.

“He said you have to drag him like a slab of moose meat,” the teacher said, her voice wavering.

She was testifying in provincial court in St. John’s as the first witness at the trial of McGrath, who has been charged with four counts of assault and one count of uttering threats against elementary school students in 2017 and 2018.

An instructional resource teacher working with children with challenges, the woman said she was hired at the school on a part-time basis. She said McGrath told her he was to be in charge of disciplining the boy in question, despite a behaviour management plan that stated otherwise.

The teacher said she had called McGrath to her classroom one day when the child was refusing to go to another class. She closed her eyes as she testified that McGrath had asked the child if he was going to go to the class, then asked him if he wanted a cold shower. The child said no to both, the teacher told the court.

She said McGrath then tipped the boy out of his chair and dragged him into the bathroom of her classroom, putting him on a bench in the shower and turning on the cold water. The boy vomited, the teacher said. She said she cleaned him up and dried him off and he went to class.

“What were you saying during this?” asked prosecutor Shawn Patten.

“I didn’t say anything,” the woman said, sobbing into her hands. She told the court she wasn’t a permanent teacher at the school and was scared for her job as well as “frightened to death” and intimidated by McGrath, who had told her his pedagogy was a punitive one.

“He always had a very intimidating demeanour,” the teacher testified. “He always walked with his chest puffed out.”

The teacher said McGrath told her, “What happens in (her classroom) stays in (her classroom). We’re like the mafia here.”

The teacher said in another incident, McGrath had stepped on the boy’s hand in an effort to make him get up off the floor; a different time he had gritted his teeth and kneed the child in the back while dragging him from the room.

She described a day when she said McGrath beckoned her over, saying he wanted to show her something.

“He took his hand and put it around here,” she told the court, gesturing to her collarbone. “He pushed his thumb in and (the boy) cried out. He said, ‘If you push here, he’ll do what he’s told. He doesn’t feel pain like we do.’”

“What was (the boy) doing at that moment?” Patten asked.

“Absolutely nothing. He was in his quiet room, sitting quietly,” the teacher replied.

The boy’s demeanour changed by January, the teacher said, when he would respond, “No, no, no,” at the mention of McGrath’s name. It was clear the child was afraid to get in trouble with the principal, she said.

The teacher said she never recorded any of the incidents in the school reporting system because she was afraid to put them in writing.

“I would never have written Mr. McGrath dragged (the child) to the quiet room and kneed him in the back, I would never had written that, because I was terrified.”

The teacher said near the end of the school year, a student assistant approached her with concerns over an alleged interaction between McGrath and another child. They spoke to the school guidance counsellor, who called the police, she said.

On cross-examination, defence lawyer Tom Johnson pointed out notes the teacher had made in her lesson plan book of the child acting aggressively and lashing out at other students and a teacher on different occasions. He questioned the teacher on inconsistencies in her timeline of events and an issue she had with her schedule at the school. He told the woman a number of her colleagues would be testifying later in the trial that she had complained to them about her schedule and had bad-mouthed McGrath to them but had never mentioned any concerns with McGrath’s interactions with the student or the alleged assaults.

“You never mentioned the issue with the student in your litany of complaints,” Johnson said, submitting the woman had told her colleagues things about McGrath when complaining about her schedule, like, “He pissed off the wrong person,” “He’s going to get what’s coming to him,” and “He may think he’s cool doing this but he’s still an asshole.” The teacher denied making the comments and appeared to grow upset.

“I’m a professional. Those words are insulting to me, to assume that they would leave my mouth in school. I just want to be clear on that,” she said, asking the court for a short recess to calm down.

Johnson later indicated a particular school staff member would be testifying about the alleged comments.

“I hope she’s under oath,” the woman said. “This is shameful. These are educators.”

Johnson will resume his cross-examination when McGrath’s trial continues today.

McGrath has been suspended from his job since the Newfoundland and Labrador Eastern School district learned of the allegations against him and is currently not receiving pay. Johnson indicated McGrath will be testifying in his own defence.

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