Warning: This story contains description of sexual abuse
As they cried together and consoled one another in Calgary on Monday, three former junior high students detailed haunting memories of the teacher they say abused them, and an untold number of others, for years.
Now adults, the former students of John Ware Junior High have come forward to tell their stories as the named plaintiffs in a statement of claim that alleges former teacher Michael Gregory carried out a years-long campaign of abuse — using sexual conversations, unsanctioned excursions and gift-giving to groom and abuse children.
“The plaintiffs contend that from the period of at least 1989 to 2005, Michael Gregory … sexually assaulted literally over 200 students,” said Jonathan Denis, a lawyer representing the group in a suit filed by Guardian Law Group LLP, at a news conference Monday.
The number is an estimate by the plaintiffs and has not been confirmed publicly by authorities.
The three former students allege that Gregory’s conduct with children was in plain view for all to see and that people in positions of authority failed to act when concerns were brought forward.
Experts who are familiar with the case say it’s a classic example of a systemic failure and underscores the need for independent groups that can be tasked with investigating misconduct by teachers. The case also highlights, they say, how often sexual abuse against children goes underreported.
Gregory died last February on Quadra Island in British Columbia in an apparent suicide just days after he was charged with 17 counts of sex-related criminal offences involving six former students.
The proposed class-action lawsuit is seeking damages of $40 million and names the Calgary Board of Education and Gregory’s estate as defendants.
The statement of claim alleges that the CBE knew of Gregory’s activities but failed investigate or act on them.
Megan Geyer, a CBE spokesperson, told the Star in an email that “the CBE has not been formally served” and that once that happens “we will respond through the appropriate legal channels.”
None of the allegations in the claim have been tested in court.
Gregory lost his teaching licence in 2006 after the Alberta Teachers’ Association launched an investigation into his conduct, the claim says.
Kelly Schneider, one of the former students named in the lawsuit, had gone to the school from 1988 to 1991. Over her grade 8 and 9 years, beginning when she was 14, Schneider and Gregory developed a “sexual relationship,” according to the statement of claim.
One time, Gregory and another teacher threw her into a shower while she was wearing a white cotton T-shirt, which became soaking wet, says the statement of claim. In another incident detailed in the court filing, during a hike that Gregory was leading, he demanded that Schneider remove her shirt in front of him and the rest of the group, who were all boys.
According to the court filing, when she was in Grade 9, Gregory approached her parents with concerns that she was sexually active and bringing boys home at lunchtime.
Schneider decided to show her parents gifts that Gregory had given her, including a gold necklace and a poster with the inscription, “Love Mike.”
Schneider’s parents went to the school the next day to “demand answers,” but were met by dismissals and were told “your daughter has quite an imagination,” the claim says.
“I was not believed,” Schneider said Monday.
Schneider was losing friends and getting bullied about the relationship with Gregory, she said.
Schneider then addressed another named complainant in the statement of claim, Eryn MacKenzie, who was seated with her Monday.
“Had I been believed in the late 80s,” she said, “Eryn would never, or should never, have crossed paths with this man.”
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The two women are about 13 years apart in age, Schneider pointed out.
“There’s a lot of girls between us that have yet to come forward,” she added.
MacKenzie went to the school from 1999 to 2002 and was pressured by Gregory to engage in sexually inappropriate activity as a minor, according to the statement of claim. She also engaged in sex acts with Gregory as a minor, all while he manipulated her, the statement of claim says.
“It affects me every single day of my life,” MacKenzie said through tears Monday. “I don’t want this to happen to anybody else ever, ever again.”
The third named plaintiff is Cody Bonkowsky, who attended the school from 1999 to 2002. During his time there, he witnessed inappropriate behaviour from Gregory with female students and even reported it to a guidance councillor, but “never heard anything more of the issue,” says the statement of claim.
Bonkowsky said Monday that he wants to see “accountability” from the CBE.
“I know there’s other men like me who are witness to it,” he said. “(Gregory) never hid it.”
“I know other people have said something,” he added. “Whether they are parents of the students, faculty themselves or children.”
Bonkowsky said that Gregory made him out to be a liar to his peers and engaged in “physical and psychological” intimidation; even, one time, pushing him into a wall and allegedly saying, “They’re never going to believe you and I’m going to make sure that they don’t.”
Earlier this year, the charges against Gregory garnered media attention and prompted 35 witnesses to come forward with information about him, as well as another 10 victims, according to a Calgary Police Service spokesperson. This brought the “known victim count to 16 students,” the spokesperson said.
“These victims called CPS from coast to coast and the United States having heard of the charges against Gregory,” the spokesperson said. “The investigation remains open as detectives are examining other investigative directions.”
Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the case furthers illuminates the need for all provinces to have independent bodies to which students and parents can go with concerns about teachers.
“People came forward over and over again,” she said of the Gregory case, adding that reports are liable to stay within the school when a parent goes to a teacher or principal with concerns.
A lot of the time, those working at the school don’t have the training to be able to act on those concerns raised to them, said Classen, speaking generally, rather than about the specific Gregory case.
“Inherently, there’s a conflict of interest,” added Classen, since all the people inside the school are too close to each other for a proper investigation to take place.
Often, concerns about teachers being sexually inappropriate with students are downplayed by those in authority, she said. There’s an assumption that kids make things out to be bigger than they usually are, but in fact, in cases of sexual abuse by adults, the opposite is usually true, said Classen.
“People underreport,” she said. “If somebody brings something forward, we should be receiving the information as highly credible and paying close attention to it, and that is, in fact, the opposite of what often happens.”
Once an independent body is established to deal with potential misconduct by a teacher, all findings of misconduct should be disclosed publicly, she added.
“The system is broken, 100 per cent,” Classen said.
Mary Jane James, the CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said the case shows that “allegedly, necessary steps were not taken” when students raised concerns. Better policies should be put in place for when concerns about sexual inappropriate behaviour by a teacher are brought forward, she said.
“These are all allegations at this point, but I think, you know, there’s a lot of smoke there. So, it tells me that there’s a pretty big fire burning in the background.”
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt
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