Shoulder rubs, inappropriate touching, belittling comments — these are some of the concerns former students and their parents say were brought to administrators of an Ottawa high school in the years leading up to one of its teachers being charged with sex offences against children.
For more than a decade, complaints about math teacher Rick Despatie's conduct at St. Matthew High School in Orléans went unanswered or dismissed, leaving some in the community feeling ignored and exposed to abuse, they allege.
CBC News has spoken with more than a dozen parents and former students of "Mr. Despatie," who was charged in April with nine counts of sexual offences against children. The charges span from September 2019 to March 2021.
Ottawa police allege Despatie touched and sexually assaulted two girls, and did so while he was in a position of trust. By the time criminal charges were laid against him, Despatie had changed his name to Rick Watkins.
The mother of one recent former student told CBC her daughter was bubbly and outgoing, but changed halfway through Grade 7, when she suddenly stopped wearing her uniform kilt to school, opting instead to wear pants.
"She would come home upset every day, very withdrawn every day. It was like something happened in Grade 7 to turn him on her. Any chance he got, he would belittle her," the mother said, referring to Despatie.
CBC isn't naming the woman to protect the identity of her daughter, who is still a minor.
They were just brushing this under the carpet. We felt helpless to do anything about it. - Edouard Larocque, parent
The woman believes the alleged treatment by the teacher was reprisal for not "playing his game." She said her daughter told her about the shoulder rubs in class, and how the teacher would touch girls' thighs while he helped them with their math.
The woman said they went to school administrators multiple times to discuss Despatie's alleged conduct, and said in March 2020, they were told the school had received other complaints and that a vice principal would be monitoring the teacher's class.
The woman said Despatie was told to keep the door to his classroom open, leaving her with the impression that school administrators believed they needed to catch him doing something wrong.
"So you're telling me that what my child is telling you is not proof?" the woman said. "That's how they made us feel ... I mean myself and multiple other parents, the same allegations, because the exact thing happened to them."
School apologized for handling of complaints
The Ottawa Catholic School Board did not reply to a request for comment on how allegations against Despatie were handled. Instead, the board said it's cooperating with the police investigation.
After Despatie was charged, however, the board sent a notice to all parents apologizing to "any former students who have experienced harm by someone in a position of trust."
The board said that the teacher was "immediately" suspended once the allegations came to the school's attention. But that didn't happen until March 2021, a month before he was charged and years after some of the complaints.
The board has also promised a review of previous complaints against Despatie, who has been a teacher since 1989. He also coached the school's basketball teams and operated a private hockey academy for children.
History of complaints
Jonathan Mayer, 26, recalls the way Despatie treated and interacted with female students being an open secret in the school.
Mayer alleged Despatie would drop items during class and have the girls, in their school kilts, pick them up. He said he also witnessed Despatie offering to drive girls home.
As a boy, he didn't know what to make of the behaviour. As a man, he said he now knows it was "downright inappropriate."
But other former students said anyone who spoke out would find themselves moved to the back of the class.
Jessica, 26, who has asked CBC to use only her first name, said when she was in Grade 7 she told the school's principal about Despatie's behaviour toward female students, which she said included giving Tylenol to girls who were experiencing menstrual cramps.
Jessica believes it got back to the teacher, who she said began bullying her.
Another parent told CBC Despatie bullied her son. CBC isn't naming either of them to protect her son's identity.
The woman said she wrote down everything her son told her about what he'd witnessed in class and sent it in an email to the now former school principal, who she said told her during a meeting in 2019 that there had been other complaints about Despatie.
She said she was left with the feeling that administrators would rather remove her son from the classroom than deal with the teacher.
Chantal and Edouard Larocque say what happened to their son in Despatie's classroom in 2008 continues to haunt him.
The Larocques said they, too, tried many times to address the teacher's alleged behaviour toward their son, who needed academic help, but were left feeling like it was their son who was the problem.
"He told us many times, [Despatie] goes around the class, he touches the girls, he touches their thighs or rubs their shoulders and leans over and looks down their tops. He told us everybody in the class knows this. Everybody in school sees it, they know it. And so that was very disturbing for us," Edouard Larocque said.
He called it a "betrayal of trust."
"It's pretty impossible for us to think that the school administration had no awareness of this and they were tolerating it for whatever reasons," Larocque said. "And they were just brushing this under the carpet. We felt helpless to do anything about it."
Despatie is next scheduled to appear in court on May 28.