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Accused principal Robin McGrath was stern but not abusive, colleagues testify as his trial resumes in St. John's

Elementary school principal Robin McGrath in provincial court in St. John's Tuesday.
Elementary school principal Robin McGrath. - Tara Bradbury file photo/The Telegram
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Witnesses testifying Monday at the trial of a Conception Bay South principal accused of assaulting young students presented a picture of him that was the opposite of how he’s been characterized in court to this point.

The trial of Robin McGrath continued in provincial court in St. John’s after a two-month break, with McGrath’s lawyers calling their first witnesses.

McGrath was firm and could be stern with the children, the court heard from five people who were working at the school at the time of the alleged crimes, but he never abused them.

McGrath is charged with assaulting elementary school students with special needs and threatening one of them during the 2017-18 school year. School staff called to testify by the Crown have described instances in which they saw McGrath angrily picking up and slamming down chairs while children were sitting in them, grabbing children by the face and leaning in close to yell at them, stepping on a child’s hand until the boy cried out in pain, and dousing a child with a cold water until he vomited. One teacher testified McGrath had asked her for a pair of scissors before holding them up to a child and threatening to “chop (their) fingers off.”

On Monday, school staff members testified McGrath had been on good terms with his students and they had never witnessed him hurt them in any way.

There has been a publication ban in place on certain details of the case since the start of McGrath’s trial, in order to protect the identities of the students. The principal’s lawyers asked Judge David Orr Monday morning to extend the ban to include the names and job titles of their witnesses. Orr granted the request.

A school staff member who worked very close to McGrath’s office told the court she had heard him discipline children on a number of occasions but never knew him to be abusive or harsh.

“Sometimes his voice would be raised and his voice was stern. It would depend on what the child was in (McGrath’s office) for,” the woman said, explaining McGrath often left his office door open.

“Did you ever hear any noise like furniture being lifted up or put down?” defence lawyer Tom Johnson asked.

“No, and if I had I think I would have gone in to see what happened,” the woman replied.

“Did you have any concern with his interaction with the children?” Johnson continued.

“No, I did not,” the woman responded, looking toward McGrath in the courtroom. “I felt he was stern when he needed to be and he was good to the kids when they needed it.”

The woman recalled McGrath having a good relationship with many children in the school, some of whom would visit him in his office to give him hockey cards. She told the court she didn’t believe any of the young complainants were afraid of McGrath and testified about looking into the principal’s office while one of the youngest children was there, seeing him sitting on a chair, swinging his legs.

Testimony so far has revealed complex relationships among some school staff members, with witnesses speaking of alliances and discord. Some witnesses have told the court they disapproved of McGrath’s alleged affair with a married staff member, while at least one has said she felt it wasn’t anyone’s business.

Multiple witnesses have broken down in tears on the stand, alleging McGrath had intimidated them into keeping quiet about the assaults they had witnessed.

McGrath is expected to take the stand in the coming days. His trial will resume Tuesday morning.

Tara Bradbury is a justice reporter in St. John's


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