Globe and Mail

Ontario teacher acquitted of sex charges

By ESTANISLAO OZIEWICZ
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Friday, July 19 – Online Edition,
Posted at 10:01 PM EST The Globe and Mail

Barrie, Ont. — An Ontario elementary-school teacher who sent dozens of salacious love notes to one of her 13-year-old students — calling him "hottie," a "big stud" and her "honey" — was acquitted yesterday of three criminal sex charges.

"I have decided that the evidence put before me is not enough to register a conviction on any of the charges," Mr. Justice Harry Keenan of the Ontario Superior Court told his courtroom, packed with about 45 spectators.

While Laura Sclater's notes to her student were "ill-advised and immature," they did not constitute criminal offences, he said.

Judge Keenan said the evidence of the student, now 18, whose identity is protected under a publication ban, "failed in many respects" and that he was "not a reliable witness." He said many things arose during the trial that forced him to conclude that the student's relationship with Ms. Sclater was a "minor contribution" to his social and other problems.

Ms. Sclater, now 31, faced one count each of sexual assault, sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching after a series of incidents with the student in early 1998, just after she had returned from maternity leave to teach at a public school near Barrie. The student was 13 at the time.

After her acquittal, Ms. Sclater was hugged by family members and friends. She cried as she put her arms around her husband, Stephen, also an elementary-school teacher.

Crown prosecutor Frank Faveri, who had portrayed Ms. Sclater as a temptress seeking "sexual gratification," refused to comment.

The mother of two children aged 3 and 5 did not speak to the media and was escorted by a phalanx of police officers out of the courthouse to a waiting car.

Her lawyer, David Matheson, who Judge Keenan said had discredited the allegations against his client, said Ms. Sclater and her family are relieved by the outcome and she is looking forward to spending the rest of the summer relaxing.

"I think today's judgment confirms two important aspects of this trial: First the cross-examinations of the young Crown witnesses were very revealing of the truth and, secondly, Laura Sclater answered each and every question put to her in a direct and forthright manner — and that's because she was telling the truth."

Mr. Matheson refused to answer any questions.

During the trial, Ms. Sclater denied kissing the student and allowing him to put his hands on her buttocks. The student testified that he was in love with his teacher. "I was obsessed by her," he told the court.

Ms. Sclater's acquittal does not end her legal troubles, however. Her accuser has launched a $2.6-million civil suit against her and the Simcoe County District School Board. The suit alleges that Ms. Sclater's efforts to develop "a romantic and sexual relationship" with the student caused him to suffer migraine headaches, blurred vision, sleeplessness, intrusive flashbacks, poor grades and teasing by classmates.

Judge Keenan said his verdict has no bearing on the civil case, where the standard of proof is a balance of probabilities. In a criminal matter, the benchmark is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

What is more, Ms. Sclater faces a disciplinary hearing this fall by a three-member panel of the Ontario College of Teachers. After criminal charges were laid in October, 2000, her teaching licence was suspended.

"The fact that she has been found not guilty does not mean that there is no professional misconduct," Denys Giguère, a college spokesman, said yesterday. "Behaviour does not have to be criminal to be inappropriate for a teacher."

A disciplinary conviction could result in a permanent revocation of Ms. Sclater's right to teach in a publicly financed school in Ontario. Lesser penalties could include restrictions on her involvement with certain age groups.

Ms. Sclater has already faced college sanctions. After the student's mother discovered the sexually charged letters, Ms. Sclater was investigated by the Children's Aid Society and removed from her classroom.

The teachers college suspended Ms. Sclater after finding at a "fitness-to-practice" hearing that she had committed "a serious boundary violation." It had heard that the York University graduate had "a mental condition, born of naiveté, some measure of psychological and emotional immaturity and poor judgment."

Ms. Sclater was sentenced to therapy and, nine months later, the teachers college said she could teach again provided that she kept a distance from adolescents. She was also ordered never to communicate with any students by e-mail or write notes not directly related to a student's work.

Ms. Sclater was rehired by the school board and assigned to another school, where angry parents petitioned the Ontario Legislature for a public inquiry. She was subsequently charged criminally and suspended again.

Yesterday, Carol Pallotta, one of the petition's organizers, said criminal charges were never an issue. She said parents were concerned that Ms. Sclater had been reinstated to teach without the circumstances being properly investigated and aired publicly.

"We felt our concerns were not being addressed," she said.

In his judgment, Judge Keenan said one of the young witnesses had testified he was coaxed and under pressure from the student's mother to compose a signed statement to be used against Ms. Sclater.

Judge Keenan said the allegation that Ms. Sclater had allowed the student to put his hands on her buttocks during a Valentine's Day dance "cannot survive scrutiny" because the student and the teacher had not developed a close relationship by then.

As well, Judge Keenan said Ms. Sclater's notes to the student at a time when the class was planning a trip to Ottawa were "lighthearted and foolish," but did not support the conclusion that they were part of a serious plan to exploit him sexually.

In one of the notes, Ms. Sclater said, "I trust you to keep your hands where they belong" if she fell asleep on a bus. And if she went swimming, she wrote, "I have decided to wear an undershirt over my bathing suit, so relax, please!!!!"

The Simcoe County District School Board is closed on Fridays during July and its spokeswoman, Debbie Clarke, could not be reached for comment.

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.