By Jennifer Saltman
Although a Coquitlam substitute teacher was acquitted of allegations that he touched his students, the parents of the children involved hope the case will change the way school districts respond to complaints.
“We are disappointed but not surprised,” said one mother, who cannot be identified because there is a publication ban shielding the identity of her daughter.
“It’s a very challenging case. Children, the district, parents need to be aware that looking ahead, this was not a waste of time.”
In a decision released Monday in B.C. Provincial Court in Port Coquitlam, Judge David St. Pierre found Aleksandr Vladimirovich Plehanov not guilty of five counts of sexual assault, five of sexual interference and one charge of criminal harassment.
More than 30 witnesses testified during the 13-day trial.
In October 2009 the Coquitlam School District received a complaint from the parent of a Bramblewood Elementary student that Plehanov had twice pulled her daughter on to his lap, put his hand under her shirt and rubbed her tummy.
In January 2010, the school district made a finding of misconduct, but Plehanov was allowed to continue teaching after seeing a psychologist and a co-ordinator.
Police became involved in March 2010 after a parent from Glen Elementary alleged that Plehanov had rubbed her daughter’s behind. Two of the girl’s classmates also testified about inappropriate incidents.
Plehanov has also been accused of asking a girl he taught at Eagle Ridge Elementary in January 2008 to sit on his lap, where he touched her waist and pelvic area.
Regarding the incidents where children sat on Plehanov’s lap, St. Pierre said in his decision that he had no doubt the girls were on Plehanov’s lap.
“It is, however, impossible to include after considering all of the evidence the nature of any further contact, if any, while they were seated on his lap and whether this contact was incidental or could be properly characterized and proven as criminal,” St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre said the evidence pertaining to the Glen Elementary allegations was “far from reliable as to the precise nature of any contact.”
Plehanov was a “clearly ineffectual teacher,” St. Pierre said, and it was clear that Plehanov was “completely ignorant of or ignored” the boundaries of appropriate contact between teachers and students, but it was not clear that the contact was criminal or specifically for a sexual purpose.
“It has to be remembered that this is a criminal case and behaviour that may breach the standards and expectations created by employers and teaching colleges in the teaching environment does not necessarily equate with behaviour that is properly characterized as criminal in nature,” St. Pierre said.
Three mothers who had children involved in the case said they would like it to be reinforced that the safety of students is a priority.
“[We hope] as a consequence of this case that each district will look at process and how things will be done should another case like this arise,” one woman said.
Added another: A lot of changes need to be made and I’m hoping that we have started change in all the districts in that the children come first.”
Changes have already taken place at the Coquitlam School District, said Supt. Tom Grant, and student safety is No. 1.
“It’s regrettable that occasionally we go through these incidents,” Grant said. “When a significant event like this occurs it provides an opportunity to review our protocols and policies.”
Now, instead of a principal alone dealing with a complaint of inappropriate conduct that could be of a sexual or physical nature and may be criminal, the principal will work with the assistant superintendent and a human resources representative to decide how to approach the complaint.
Administrative staff have received training and participated in workshops dealing with investigations, and that training will continue.
The district has also had a series of meetings with the Coquitlam RCMP and Port Moody Police Department to outline how to approach similar situations.
“I think that we’re in a better place than we were,” Grant said.
The acquittal doesn’t mean Plehanov will automatically be allowed to teach again.
According to B.C.’s Teacher Regulation Branch, Plehanov’s teaching certificate has been suspended since May 2010 pending the outcome of regulatory proceedings and he is currently ineligible to teach in B.C.
The branch’s hearing process was deferred because of the criminal case and the next step will be to schedule a disciplinary hearing. If one is scheduled, the date will be posted to the branch’s website. Hearings are open to the public.
The district will also resume its internal investigation into Plehanov’s conduct.
This article was written by Jennifer Saltman and originally published on theprovince