Principal accused of assaulting students did little more than speak sternly, court hears

·4 min read

A trial already fraught with emotional outbursts, intense witness examination lasting hours and bitter workplace feuds played out on the stand resumed Monday for a former principal accused of assaulting multiple young students.

Despite previous testimony, five staff members — all called to the witness box by the defendant's lawyers — said they did not observe Robin McGrath scream at or threaten anybody.

Two of those witnesses, who were working in close proximity to McGrath at the time, emphasized he did little more to discipline his students than speak firmly to them.

It's a vast dissimilarity to the man characterized as a tyrant who dragged one disabled child into a cold shower and grabbed another by the face.

McGrath, a former principal of a Conception Bay South elementary school that can't be named due to a publication ban, is charged with four counts of assault, all allegedly against minors with disabilities. He also faces one count of uttering threats.

Prior testimony described him carrying out bizarre forms of punishment, such as squeezing a child in a bear hug until he cried, stepping on a child's hand and threatening to cut a student's fingers off while brandishing a pair of scissors.

Monday's testimony, in contrast, painted McGrath as a standard authority figure who was called on to take disciplinary action, and who developed friendly relationships with some students.

I'd even go so far as to say they had a good relationship.

One staff member said students would drop by just to speak with him, sometimes to show him hockey cards.

A staff member who worked a stone's throw from McGrath's office during the 2017-2018 school year said he would always talk to children with his door open.

Sometimes he'd speak sternly and with a raised voice, she said — but it never crossed a line.

"I wouldn't say [he was] yelling. He was loud ... I felt he was stern when he needed to be stern and that he was good with the kids," she said.

The children who McGrath allegedly assaulted showed no signs of fear around him, she said.

One child in particular would sit in McGrath's office after misbehaving. On one occasion, the witness said, she poked her head in the door; nothing seemed amiss.

"[The child] would be sitting on the chair swinging his legs, talking away to Robin," she said, frequently nodding her head toward the former principal from the witness stand as she referred to him.

Another member of the school staff described similar behaviour from the alleged victims.

One of those students, who McGrath often needed to physically lift from his mother's car to coax him into class, said the child did not appear harmed or frightened by him.

"He'd be skipping down the hall and he'd wave and smile at Mr. McGrath," the teacher testified.

"I'd even go so far as to say they had a good relationship."

Divided staff

Much of Monday's questioning attempted to untangle the complex workplace relationships between school staff, sometimes veering into territory the relevance of which Judge David Orr questioned more than once.

Lawyers pressed witnesses on personal opinions of their colleagues, with the prosecutor repeatedly asking a staff member, at one point, how she felt about the staff members who'd made the allegations.

The staff member emphatically denied that she disapproved of any of her colleagues. But upon cross-examination she revealed she did, in fact, have a strong emotional reaction to staff members who criticized McGrath's alleged affair with a married staff member.

Ryan Cooke/CBC
Ryan Cooke/CBC

She said she didn't think it was anyone's business what McGrath did in his romantic life, but insisted she was on "friendly terms with everybody in the school."

It was one more instance added to an emerging picture of a work environment divided along enemy lines.

The staff member said she also observed daily closed-door meetings between two other staff members, both major players in the allegations against McGrath.

She said if she had any inkling McGrath had harmed children, she would have spoken up.

"As a mother and a grandmother I would not be able to stand by and let anybody do anything to hurt a child," she said.

Testimony continues Tuesday.

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