Class action lawsuit alleges abuse at Ontario schools for the deaf

The statement of claim alleges sexual, physical and mental abuse at four provincially run schools for the deaf over the course of decades.

TORONTO – A Toronto man alleges he was abused for years at Ontario schools for the deaf and has launched a class action lawsuit on behalf of other former students against the provincial government.

The statement of claim, filed Monday in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, alleges sexual, physical and mental abuse at four provincially run schools for the deaf over the course of decades.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Christopher Welsh, in his statment of claim, accuses the province of negligence in the establishment, funding, operation, management and supervision of schools in Ottawa, London, Belleville and Milton.

“Students have suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of teachers, residence counsellors, other students and employees of the schools,” reads the statement of claim.

A spokesman for the province’s Ministry of Education would not comment on the case as it is before the courts, but said the current government believes every child deserves high-quality education and a supportive learning environment.

“Over the years, we have been committed to ensuring students in our schools have access to the supports and resources they need to succeed,” said Gary Wheeler.

“This includes our most vulnerable students.”

Welsh went to two of the schools named in the class-action suit — Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton, Ont., where he lived from the time he was five years old in 1964, followed by Robarts School for the Deaf in London, Ont., according to the claim.

He said he was forced to wear hearing aids and was repeatedly struck across his ears, leaving him bloodied and in pain.

Welsh’s claim also alleges he was hit with rolled up magazines across his hands and beaten with a stick and belt by teachers as “a form of punishment” for using sign language instead of speech when conversing with other students.

He alleges teachers and counsellors often snuck up behind him, taking advantage of his hearing problems, and would grab him at the urinal and slam him into a wall or rip the chair out from under him as he was sat doing homework.

Later, when he attended the Robarts School for the Deaf, the abuse continued, according to the claim.

A counsellor at Robarts, wearing leather boots with pointed toes, repeatedly ambushed Welsh and kicked him in the buttocks, leaving him bruised and in pain when sitting. The counsellor did the same thing to other students, the claim alleges.

Teachers and staff often called him “deaf and dumb.”

The statement of claim suggests Welsh was not alone.

“Hundreds, if not thousands” of students may have been affected, said Welsh’s lawyer, Robert Gain, with the firm Koskie Minsky.

Teachers hit students in the mouth to teach them how to talk, the claim charges.

If students didn’t use speech to communicate, teachers would “forcefully hold students’ arms and restrain them” so they couldn’t use sign language.

The statement of claim alleges counsellors took advantage of the students’ hearing problems by sneaking up, often under their beds, to grab their feet and pull them down. Other students would have to lie face down on their beds as counsellors spanked them repeatedly, causing injuries in many cases, according to the claim.

Gain said he has spoken with other survivors who shared similar stories of alleged abuse. Two other schools, Belleville’s Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf and Ottawa’s Centre Jules-Leger in Ottawa have also been named in the lawsuit.

Gain said Welsh “wanted to bring this case forward and shine a light on the problem so that others would have access to justice and could have their stories heard and the province held responsible and accountable for the misconduct.”

“The province certainly had a duty to have proper procedures and oversight and they failed to live up to their obligations to these vulnerable students,” he said, adding he believes there may be more former students who want to share their stories.

Gain said the next step is to seek certification — the court’s permission — to continue the case.

The lawsuit is seeking $325 million in damages.

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