Complaints about Ontario teacher came years before sex assault conviction

·4 min read
Emily Dickinson graduated from St. John Catholic High School in Perth, Ont., in 2008. Referring to her interactions with former teacher Jeff Peters, she said, 'I just thought I was so mature. You're not. You're being manipulated.' (Submitted by Emily Dickinson - image credit)
Emily Dickinson graduated from St. John Catholic High School in Perth, Ont., in 2008. Referring to her interactions with former teacher Jeff Peters, she said, 'I just thought I was so mature. You're not. You're being manipulated.' (Submitted by Emily Dickinson - image credit)

Looking back on her high school years, 31-year-old Emily Dickinson says she now knows she was taken in by a masterful manipulator — her former teacher Jeff Peters, who was recently convicted of sexual assault in Perth, Ont.

"Our relationship was certainly crossing a million boundaries in terms of messaging outside of school, making comments about me in a kilt, making sexually suggestive comments," said Dickinson. "I just thought I was so mature. You're not. You're being manipulated."

On April 29, Peters pleaded guilty to charges of sex crimes against two former students. The victims attended St. John Catholic High School in Perth between 2013 and 2016.

CBC has since heard from other women, including Dickinson, who say they were victimized by Peters before that.

Dickinson said she was never physically assaulted by Peters, but said her former teacher did groom her with sexually inappropriate comments and messages, then asked her to lie about what was going on.

Dickinson said her mother went to a school administrator more than a decade ago, asking for the behaviour to stop and for the teacher to be reprimanded.

"There's just a lot of frustration about knowing how preventable this whole situation was, and also just devastation. How many people were affected over these last 15 years? A lot more than two, I know that for sure," said Dickinson.

Former teacher Jeff Peters pleaded guilty in April to the sexual assault of two former students. These are photos of Peters found in high school yearbooks.
Former teacher Jeff Peters pleaded guilty in April to the sexual assault of two former students. These are photos of Peters found in high school yearbooks.(St. John Catholic High School)

'I lied'

Dickinson attended St. John between 2004 and 2008, when Peters taught a popular American history class that she said often included a trip to Washington, D.C., or Boston.

As a teacher, Peters was "engaging, interesting … buddy-buddy," she recalled.

Dickinson said the grooming started when she was 16. The two chatted using an online messenger, conversations that she described as "super sexual."

She said he gave her gifts and once told her, "I saw you in your kilt today. If I was a boy your age, you have no idea the things I'd do to you."

She said Peters had a "special" connection with other girls, too. In her last year of high school, Dickinson said a parent of one of those students went to the principal with concerns about Peters, and mentioned his closeness with Dickinson.

She was subsequently called to the office, she said, but went to Peters first.

"He was super calm and just was like, 'OK, all of those messages we have between us, they need to be deleted and you need to lie because they won't understand our relationship,'" she recalled. "So that's what I did. I lied."

Peters taught history and religion and also coached sports teams at St. John Catholic High School in Perth, Ont.
Peters taught history and religion and also coached sports teams at St. John Catholic High School in Perth, Ont.(Julie Ireton/CBC)

Worried about her sister

Andrea Dickinson said she grew suspicious of Peters after Emily graduated and the teacher began turning his attention to her younger daughter.

"He started stalking [my younger daughter] in the hallway every day to ask how Emily was," she said. "I just thought, he's trying to ... start a relationship with my younger daughter, who also looks a lot like Emily."

Emily, who had just started at Carleton University, was also worried about her sister and told her mother about what had happened with Peters. Andrea Dickinson said she went to see the principal, who told her he'd deal with it.

"But literally nothing was done," she recalled.

Dickinson said she asked the school not to place her younger daughter in any of Peters's classes. But when the schedule came out, she had been. For other family reasons, the younger girl eventually left St. John.

CBC asked the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario for an interview or comment regarding parents having approached the principal about Peters years ago.

The board responded with a statement that read in part: "Given that the Board has referred this matter to the Ontario College of Teachers for review, it would be inappropriate to make any further comments at this time."

'Finally, they've got this guy'

Andrea Dickinson says she was relieved in 2019 to hear Peters had been charged. 'Finally, they've got this guy,' she recalled saying.
Andrea Dickinson says she was relieved in 2019 to hear Peters had been charged. 'Finally, they've got this guy,' she recalled saying. (Submitted by Andrea Dickinson)

When Andrea Dickinson heard Peters had been arrested and charged in 2019, she said she felt immediate relief.

"Oh my god, like finally, finally, they've got this guy," she recalled saying. "Between the 11 years, between the time I complained and he was arrested, you can only imagine how many girls were affected."

But the news left Emily with feelings of guilt.

"I wish I could have done more," she said. "Even though it's not my responsibility ... at the same time, now I'm older, I wish I'd done something to prevent this."

Now living in Toronto, Emily Dickinson knows many people in Perth feel the same way.

"It's a really small community and every single person would have been manipulated to some extent," she said. "What's most important to me is obviously showing respect and remorse to victims, because that's what's actually important here."