Current and former students at The King’s School say a male teacher, who has been put on leave amid an investigation, overstepped boundaries by massaging them, disclosing intimate secrets to teenagers, and asking deeply personal questions in return — including the status of their relationships with their fathers.

Current and former students at The King’s School say a male teacher, who has been put on leave amid an investigation, overstepped boundaries by massaging them, disclosing intimate secrets to teenagers, and asking deeply personal questions in return — including the status of their relationships with their fathers.

One Grade 12 student at the independent Winnipeg school, which is run in partnership with Gateway Church and partially funded by the provincial government, said she immediately noticed the educator’s inappropriate behaviour when she enrolled.

"It just didn’t sit right with me," she told the Free Press.

The student described the educator’s conduct as "intimate." He offered what he called "fatherly hugs" and asked teenage girls, herself included, about what their relationship with their fathers was like, she said.

"Private schools and private Christian schools need boundaries. We can’t just do things just because we’re Christian. We need clear boundaries. We are a school… before we are a church."

Multiple sources indicated the teacher has a reputation for being touchy with students, be it by hugging or putting his hands on their shoulders when he prays for them in the tight-knit community, and proclaims that is how he "shows God’s love."

A former student said little changed after she reported being uncomfortable in the fall of 2018. Earlier this year, however, a group of current pupils approached administration with similar concerns that have prompted an external probe.

Prior to a Free Press report, church leaders and administrators at The King’ School, an evangelical institution that provides instruction for pupils in preschool through Grade 12, had released few details about the situation.

<p>JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p>
Current and former students at The King’s School say a male teacher, who has been put on leave, overstepped boundaries by massaging them and disclosing intimate secrets to teenagers.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Current and former students at The King’s School say a male teacher, who has been put on leave, overstepped boundaries by massaging them and disclosing intimate secrets to teenagers.

Gateway Church issued a notice late Wednesday to inform members of the congregation about the investigation, which has been underway for more than four months. 

Church elders acknowledged the recent media coverage and assured the community the school takes the safety and well-being of its students "very seriously" and has "comprehensive protection policies and procedures" to guide the response to any concerns about employees. 

"Earlier this year, concerns about inappropriate behaviour were brought to the school board’s attention regarding a teacher in the school… The teacher in question was immediately put on leave while an investigation was initiated," states the mass email to members. 

(Several pupils dispute this claim; they say the teacher remained on the job during early questioning and until the school faced vocal student and parent pressure.)

The June 1 notice from Gateway states an independent investigator, who was retained in February, is in the process of meeting with past and present students and will submit a report with findings "as soon as possible." 

Church leaders wrote it is "a very difficult time for everyone concerned, in the midst of year-end and preparing for the move (to a new school location in West St. Paul)," and thanked congregants for their prayers. 

A Manitoba teacher’s first responsibility is to their students and they recognize "a privileged relationship with students exists and refrains from exploiting that," per their provincial code of professional practice. 

Teachers-in-training learn about that document at their first orientation and study consent throughout their undergraduate career, said Martha Koch, an associate dean of undergraduate programs and partnerships in the University of Manitoba’s education faculty. 

Koch said professors use case studies to explore the topic and promote practices such as leaving a room door open when teachers meet with students to prepare students for complex situations on the job. 

<p>JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p>
Church elders say the school takes the safety and well-being of its students seriously.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Church elders say the school takes the safety and well-being of its students seriously.

"The reality is teaching is a very human interaction and professional judgment will always be required in terms of what’s appropriate," she added.

As far as a Winnipeg-based sex educator is concerned, there should be enthusiastic and clearly-communicated, consent before a physical interaction of any kind and a power imbalance makes navigating those situations "nearly impossible."

"Consent is about respect. Consent is about bodily autonomy. Consent is about sharing and caring for other human beings. It’s about empathy. It’s about honouring your instincts. It’s about so much more than, ‘Did someone do something illegal?’" said Erica McNabb, co-director of Red Tent, an organization that provides training on anti-oppression, safe spaces and consent. 

McNabb said youth who have survived grooming, sexual harassment or unwanted attention by a teacher need to be immediately assured their disclosures will be taken seriously. 

"They need to hear, literally: ‘I believe you.’ They need to be told it was not their fault, and schools need to give adequate supports to be able to heal from those experiences." 

During an assembly held Wednesday, administrators informed pupils they were aware students knew of news coverage involving The King’s School. 

The next day, female teachers met with high school girls to apologize for how the situation has been handled and the fact youth had long been feeling uncomfortable before they felt safe to report their concerns. 

Krista Gerbrandt said she continues to be frustrated by the lack of transparency provided by both her former church and her children’s old school.

"We pay for our children to be there. We expect a certain level of transparency and care and morality and standards from a private Christian education — and that did not happen," said Gerbrandt, who last year transferred her children to public school. 

Annual tuition is nearly $5,000 per high school student, with discounts available for families with multiple pupils enrolled.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.