Ottawa Citizen
Friday 12 January 2001

Crown drops charges against teacher

Man faced sex charges after giving girls, 10, pats on the shoulder

Jake Rupert
The Ottawa Citizen

Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen / Meadowlands Public School teacher Guido Sterlini, 48, vowed yesterday outside court to return to teaching.

Guido Sterlini might as well be the human face of male teachers, coaches, scout leaders and others who regularly come in contact with young children and have been wrongly accused of sex crimes.

Even after assistant Crown attorney Brian Holowka withdrew the charges against him yesterday, Mr. Sterlini's career and reputation might be ruined by the police force that laid the charges and the media that reported them.

Despite having his name tarnished, standing outside an Ottawa courtroom yesterday, Mr. Sterlini vowed to return to his profession of the last 25 years.

"This is what I do," the 48-year-old said. "It is my job."

It was, until two 10-year-old girls complained to another teacher about their Meadowlands Public School French teacher "touching" them last fall.

That teacher told the principal, who contacted the school board, which called police. Sgt. Brad Hampson interviewed the girls for one hour on Sept. 21 and pulled Mr. Sterlini out of his class and arrested him.

He was charged with two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual interference.

Mr. Sterlini spent that night in jail before being released on bail the next morning. Since then, he has been suspended with pay from his job pending the outcome of the case.

Michael Code, Mr. Sterlini's defence lawyer, who read the girls' statements, said the "touching" they complained about consisted of nothing more than congratulatory pats on the front of the girls' shoulders, above the breasts.

Furthermore, he said, even this might not have happened because he interviewed pupils sitting near the girls who said they saw no touching at all.

"If the contact occurred, there was no evidence to suggest it was of a sexual nature," he said. "In fact, if it did happen, it was clearly of a non-sexual nature."

In court, Mr. Holowka pointed out that police lay charges if they have reason to believe a crime has been committed. Crown attorneys, he said, decide whether to proceed with a case.

"After looking at the evidence, this is something that should be taken care of in the employment environment," Mr. Holowka said.

Mr. Code was more critical of the police work in Mr. Sterlini's case.

"This clearly reflects a misunderstanding of the law of sexual assault on the part of the police who handled this case," he said. "My understanding is this issue has been or is being addressed by the Ottawa police."

Lisa Falls, vice-president of the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary School Teachers' Federation, who attended yesterday's proceedings, said there is another thing to address immediately: Mr. Sterlini's career.

She said the board will conduct an internal investigation into the incident. After this, a staff review panel will go over the findings and decide on a course of action.

"We're hopeful and optimistic that Mr. Sterlini will be returned to the classroom, where he belongs," Ms. Falls said.

She noted that male teachers are very aware these things can happen. They are coached not to be alone with children, to keep doors open, and to be "ultra careful" when they must be in situations when they are alone with their pupils.

Because of this, she said, children with special needs, who might benefit from a closer relationship with their teachers, are out of luck due to the fear of false complaints.

Mr. Code said it didn't have to be like this for Mr. Sterlini.

"It was a pretty obvious case from the beginning," he said. "These were congratulatory pats given to students for a job well done. This situation got out of control."

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.