Featured Illustration: Nadezda Grapes
Trigger Warning: The following article describes a sexual abuse scandal at a high school in Toronto, Ontario, and how it reflects the much bigger cultural problem of sweeping abuse under the rug.
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“Be careful about being alone with him.”
I was fifteen. It was one of the first things I heard about any of the teachers when I transferred schools in the fall of 2017. One of my classmates told me that as she gestured to the white-haired man at the front of the room. She was talking about our teacher. “I heard he sleeps with students after they graduate.”
“Well, then I still have a few more years.”
“He probably chooses them earlier.”
We laughed it off, and so did most of the student body. It was a running joke. People would make guesses about who would be next after our year’s graduating ceremony. And no one took it to heart because well, this was the same teacher who wore cardboard hats and swore while teaching and gave us granola bars when we had to stay after school to edit. So even after another teacher was fired for sexual misconduct, the film teacher’s post-commencement* affairs were reduced to one of the running gags at school, right along with vaping in the gender-neutral bathroom or the principal ringing an old fashioned bell in students’ ears after lunch hour. And besides, they were just rumours, right? Even if they weren’t, what he was doing wasn’t technically illegal. So we laughed. We laughed when he would comment on our clothes, our hair, the way we looked on a certain day in the middle of class. We laughed when his hands would linger on our shoulders for a little too long, or brush our legs as he sat next to us. Or when he’d reach over our chairs to show us how to render footage on the computers. We even laughed when we passed on the same warnings to new students. The excuses we told ourselves and others were: “he’s just like that, he’s touchy with everyone” and “surely if he’d really done something we would’ve heard it by now.”
Of course, any voices of real concern were quickly dismissed as paranoia. Any vocal objections were considered overreacting. Perhaps we were willing to let some red flags slide because he was still our teacher, and a good one at that. But as women, we are too often told to suppress our discomfort with a smile. Particularly, when it comes to dealing with men in positions of power. In every environment, whether that be on the clock as a waitress or on the street at night, we are trained to keep laughing even when the joke is not funny, disguise our disgust with a polite smile and a “thank you”. The inherent entitlement of toxic masculinity means that our politeness often acts as a shield from men with ulterior motives. It’s easy to think about standing up for ourselves and holding our ground in theory, however, to grow up as a woman is to constantly be reminded of, or experience the consequences of saying “no” to people who hold power over us, so we find ourselves doing what we can to keep ourselves safe, which often means having to bite our tongues.
The jokes about the film teacher stopped being funny around July 2020, when the school board started investigating him for allegations of sexual assault, and even less funny that September, when he was arrested for two counts of sexual assault and one count of exploitation. All of the charges involved minors. Suddenly, all the leg-brushing and shoulder touching, the after-school hours of shooting and editing, the time spent alone in the class and the sound room — those all went from fun memories of life behind-the-scenes of an arts school, to chilling cautionary tales of what could’ve happened to many, and what, tragically, did happen to some.
After the school board released the statement announcing his suspension and pending investigation, more and more people started to come forward on social media with their experiences of being groomed by the film teacher. As more alumni came forward, it became clearer that his behaviour was not the result of a few isolated incidents but rather a calculated pattern, dating all the way back to when he started teaching at the school in 2005. Multiple survivors spoke of the ways he would try to make them feel special, offering rides and making sure they sat shotgun, and letting her take equipment home all to gain her trust. But this was a carefully crafted image of his, as we have now come to learn. He, like many men who are given power, created a mask of a caring mentor and put on a performance during his office hours. All so it could be easier to abuse his power behind closed doors. And so, despite the years of whispers of rumours and jokes, his performance was always enough to ward off any suspicion from the people who had the power to take action.
In their official statement, the administration emphasized that they were clueless in regards to the actions of the film teacher, and did their due diligence in emphasizing that his actions should not reflect the school or administration. This, however, is in contrast to many of the students, who allege that they had previously come forward with stories of inappropriate behaviour from the film teacher only to have their stories be swept under the rug and ignored by the administration. But while one or two teachers can be written off as a couple of bad apples, that same month, four men in my graduating class who went to that high school were also exposed as abusers. Prior to 2020, multiple survivors had tried to come forward with their stories about one of these men, Langston Francis, who was an up-and-coming musician, and were quickly ostracized by many of their peers, who chose to believe the perpetrator when he referred to these women as “crazy”. A friend of Francis’, Matthew Anningson, has confessed in a recording to committing multiple offences of sexual harassment and assault. It was only after women came forward with dozens of stories of them harassing, coercing, abusing, and assaulting multiple women in the city that many of their male peers finally doubled down and held them accountable. Langston Francis has since been dropped from his label. The film teacher has since been charged with all counts filed against him. But these rumours had been circulating about these men for as long as I had known them, longer even. And they were ignored. The film teacher was 56 when he was arrested; my classmates were 15-18 when they abused their victims. Is there a certain age when men can be held accountable for their actions? Or do we turn the other cheek when men, regardless of their age, have enough talent and charm to make us more inclined to believe them?
The problem does not start nor does it end with one bad teacher or one bad student. What happened with my high school last summer is not a cause, but a symptom. It happened three years ago at another high school in the same city and it will continue to happen everywhere until we stop teaching men that they have an inherent right to women’s bodies.
We must dismantle every part of the system that allows people with power to abuse it as long as they have enough money, talent, charm, or charisma, and we must start enforcing the boundaries of consent.
We of course never want to believe that a friend, a classmate, someone we trust, someone who we look up to, someone who is responsible for us, is capable of abusing that power and trust in the worst way someone can. But why are we so willing to give men the benefit of the doubt while blatantly ignoring the pain of women? As hard as it is to accept that a friendly face to you could be someone else’s abuser, the scariest and often most confusing part for the survivors is that they also trusted the people who abused them. In 80% of assault cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim, and for many women, one of the hardest parts about hearing these stories is being reminded that we are not exempt from this kind of violence, even and especially from people we love and care about. The film teacher was well-loved by many students, his class was a safe space for many and he was, so it seemed, a good teacher. My classmates had many friends who loved and cared about them and yet that did not stop them from taking advantage of the trust that they built. It is deeply unnerving to know that these men worked so hard to perform kindness towards women for the sole purpose of taking advantage of them when they are vulnerable enough. As a woman, as a survivor, it deeply shakes the trust you have in people, and makes you wonder how many men have performed kindness to your face with the intention of taking advantage of your trust as soon as you’ve let your guard down.
Despite the fear and anger I felt hearing these stories, and the betrayal I felt knowing that the perpetrators were once people I cared about, I am still reminded of the resilience of women. These incredibly brave survivors came forward at the risk of their own personal well-being and safety to share their truth and to prevent others from getting hurt. And because they came forward, so many other people were able to share their stories as well. What happened with my high school last summer allowed myself and many others to come to terms with their own sexual trauma and begin to heal. By holding abusers accountable, we are able to open up a discussion around sex and consent, and dismantle the idea that it (sex) is somehow owed to anyone. It is important that people of all genders are part of this discussion and are able to be given the resources to both learn about sex and consent and heal from their trauma. The more we are able to come forward and share our stories, the more we can work towards building a society where people who are given power are no longer encouraged nor given the tools to abuse it.
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