Settlement reached in class action over alleged abuse at school for the blind

TORONTO — A class-action lawsuit involving allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at an Ontario boarding school for the blind has been settled out of court.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs say the $8-million settlement with the province — reached one day before the case was to go to trial earlier this week — must still be approved by courts.

A hearing date is tentatively set for June.

The class action included former students of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont.

The defendant was not the school itself or any individual staff members, but rather the government of Ontario, which was responsible for overseeing the school.

Allegations contained in the statement of claim contended students attending the school from the early 1950s to the late 2000s were subjected to psychological degradation, physical violence and sexual abuse.

The suit also alleged some staff were improperly trained for their jobs and the school failed to conduct regular criminal or reference checks on employees.

A former student who became the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit said he welcomed the settlement and hoped it would bring an end to a painful chapter for all concerned.

“I’m pleased that we didn’t have to go to trial on this one,” said Robert Seed, who attended the school from 1954 to 1965. “I think all parties concerned, they were pretty level-headed about it and … wanted to make sure that the people that are in the lawsuit were taken care of.”

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General issued a statement outlining the general terms of the settlement, but declined further comment as the deal is still subject to court approval.

  1. Ross Macdonald referred all questions to the Ministry of Education, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The class-action suit, which was certified by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2012, covered students who attended W. Ross Macdonald between Jan 1, 1951 and May 4, 2012. A family class also covered close relatives of students who went to the school from March 31, 1978 to May 4, 2012.

The statement of claim in the case contained allegations of wide-spread physical, emotional and sexual abuse spanning at least six decades.

It alleged the Ontario government, as ultimate overseer of the school, failed to protect a particularly vulnerable population from harm.

“Throughout the class period, the residence counsellors, teachers and administrators at Ross MacDonald treated the students with contempt, prejudice and indifference,” the statement of claim alleged. “They engaged in abusive conduct, often taking advantage of the visual disabilities of students.”

Students were routinely punished for minor matters such as feeling homesick, struggling with their reading skills or using too much toilet paper, the statement of claim alleged.

The suit claimed staff members from teachers to school aids often resorted to violence, such as forcing students to drink from urinals and jumping on the backs of those as young as six years old.

The statement of claim also alleged staff played upon the visual impairments of students, sneaking up on them during private conversations and spinning students around to deliberately disorient them.

Seed, for his part, alleged he was the target of unwanted sexual advances by a residence counsellor working at the school some time during his 11-year tenure.

He also alleged witnessing another teacher striking students, throwing objects at them and making belittling remarks that eroded their confidence.

Tom Dekker, a former student who had been scheduled to testify at the trial that was averted by the settlement, said he believes W. Ross Macdonald has undergone significant reforms in recent years and offers a valuable resource to blind students from across the country.

He said he views the settlement as an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and welcomes it on those terms.

“I think I’d be a lot better off in life if certain things hadn’t happened to me at that place,” he said from Victoria, B.C. “So this is just kind of compensation to give me some kind of resources to catch up on things I missed out on.”

Seed agreed, saying the suit was not meant to tarnish the school’s reputation, but rather to seek justice for people who continue to feel the effects of their time there to this day.

He likened their situation to other more high-profile instances of alleged abuse in residential school facilities.

“In a lot of cases we were measured up against the residential school abuse that the indigenous people suffered,” he said. “I attended the hearings in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the stories that I heard were much the same as W. Ross Macdonald.”

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