He has yet to testify at his own trial, but the court has already heard much about elementary school principal Robin McGrath’s version of events when it comes to alleged assaults on children.
Six witnesses have testified for the Crown at McGrath’s trial in provincial court over the past two weeks, though the majority of time has been spent on the defence lawyers’ cross-examinations of them.
In cross-examinations that have lasted days and left two witnesses asking in exasperation when it would be over, Tom Johnson and Ian Patey have centred many of their questions around details they say McGrath will testify about.
All of the witnesses were employees at the school in Conception Bay South that McGrath had been overseeing during the 2017-18 school year. For each of the witnesses' allegations of having seen McGrath assault or threaten a student with special needs that year, McGrath’s lawyers presented them with his own alleged events.
When the witnesses told the court they saw McGrath angrily picking up and slamming down chairs in which children were sitting, his lawyers said he will testify the incidents never happened, or, in one case, he had only lifted a child’s chair in order to move his foot around it.
Some of the witnesses said they had seen McGrath at different times using his two hands to grab children by the face, then lean in close to yell at them; McGrath’s lawyers suggested he had held the children’s faces in an effort to make them focus their attention on him.
One teacher testified McGrath asked her for a pair of scissors before holding them up to a child and threatening to “chop (their) fingers off"; the defence lawyers proposed he had instead warned the child to be careful using scissors “before you chop your fingers off."
When a number of the witnesses said they had seen McGrath step on a child’s hand until the boy cried out in pain, Johnson and Patey said McGrath is adamant he never did so purposefully.
After a teacher said she had seen McGrath douse a child with cold water until he vomited in shock, the lawyers said McGrath will testify he had only run cold water on the child’s hands as a sensory intervention and had never known the child to vomit.
McGrath never screamed at children, the lawyers put to the witnesses, though he did speak to them in a firm and sometimes raised voice if it was required. He never pushed a child through a doorway, nor did he tell one of the witnesses, "I made a child s--- his pants today" by shaking the boy's chair.
After the school’s vice-principal told the court she had seen McGrath call a student over to his desk, turn the child around, then cross the boy’s arms over the boy’s chest and hold him there, squeezing the child until he cried, Johnson provided a detailed account of what he said his client will testify, explaining the crossed-arm hold is a valid crisis-prevention technique. McGrath used the hold on the child to stop him from hitting, Johnson told the vice-principal, asking for her response.
“What you’re describing now is not the incident I remember,” the woman replied, explaining the technique Johnson was demonstrating was indeed a crisis-prevention technique, but it was not what she had witnessed McGrath doing to the child.
The lawyers, including prosecutor Shawn Patten, have asked at least three of the witnesses why they waited months before reporting the abuse they said they had witnessed. The response given by all three is one the defence has yet to directly address: they were afraid of McGrath.
“I was well aware of my duty,” the assistant principal said Thursday, lowering her head. “I cannot rationalize the decision. I cannot rationalize the fear. I can’t rationalize why it kept me from being able to speak, but it did.
“I wasn’t worried about my career. I was afraid. I was worried about the repercussions on me personally if this came forward and nothing came of it. I was afraid. I was afraid of Mr. McGrath. He scared me.”
Johnson pointed out the school district’s policies would have protected the vice-principal, and had she reported being afraid of McGrath, the district would likely have investigated that, too.
“What would happen then? Robin did tell me that nobody goes up against him. You go up against him and you won’t win,” the woman said, as did others who testified.
“That comment that you attribute to Mr. McGrath has no application to an abuse report to the district or child protection, right?” Johnson said.
“Me making a report would be me going up against him,” the vice-principal replied.
Johnson questioned the woman Thursday on what she acknowledged were issues with her memory related to the school year, her friendship with a member of the school district’s human resources executive, as well as various points of disagreement she had with McGrath that year. She had wanted him to hire a certain guidance counsellor, but he didn’t, she acknowledged. Another time, she was deemed to be in a conflict of interest when it came to calling a teacher in her family to serve as a substitute.
Johnson alleged there was a disagreement over the woman’s cellphone, when McGrath told her she was on it too much and she replied, “Go f--- yourself, Robin.”
The vice-principal said she couldn’t recall that conversation and would never make that comment.
Johnson said a number of the woman’s colleagues will be testifying, including the school secretary, who will say her desk was seven feet away from McGrath's office and she never heard McGrath yell at any child or slam any chairs.
The vice-principal, like the guidance counsellor who testified before her, took exception to that suggestion.
I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have heard it,” the vice-principal said. “I don’t accept that (there was no yelling or screaming) and I don’t accept that she didn’t hear it.”
The Crown’s seventh and final witness, another teacher at the school, began her testimony about 20 minutes before court adjourned for the day Thursday. She will return to the stand Friday morning.
McGath’s trial was expected to finish Friday afternoon, but the defence has not yet begun presenting its case. Dates to resume the trial are expected to be set Friday.
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