TORONTO—Officials at a private French high school in Toronto waged a months-long “campaign of communication” to defame two teenage students involved in a fight because they were Muslim, the lawyer representing the pair told court Monday.
In three separate suits being tried together, Omar Elgammal and Danial Velshi—who were 13 and 12 at the time—allege they were publicly blamed by officials at the Toronto French School for a fight with a student from another school.
Elgammal and Velshi, who are now 20, claim the fight broke out on Oct. 23, 2008 over racial slurs the other teen used to describe them and their relatives. They allege the boy was at the school to sell drugs.
The other teen “engaged in racial taunting of Omar Elgammal, calling him a terrorist, calling his father Osama Bin Laden and making gestures of a terrorist with a bomb hand-detonator,” their lawyer Jeffery Wilson said Monday in his opening statement.
That same teen had previously called Velshi’s mother, who is from the Philippines, a “maid or nanny,” Wilson said.
Elgammal replied using a homophobic slur and soon after, all three met in a nearby park where “an altercation occurred,” the lawyer said.
“The altercation lasted less than a minute. There were no weapons involved. No noticeable injuries occurred,” he said.
Yet both students were later painted as “thugs” and “cowards” by school officials and suspended for weeks, Wilson said.
School officials—including headmaster John Godfrey, a former Liberal MP, and principal Heidi Gollert—denounced the pair at a school assembly and in emails to parents and alumni, as well as in a letter to the editor in Toronto Life magazine, the suits allege.
Emails about the incident were sent to the broader school community several times in the next year, even though both plaintiffs transferred to other schools, they allege.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Velshi’s older brother recorded the assembly, which took place shortly after the incident. In a transcript presented in court, Gollert told students two of their peers had “taunted” and “assaulted” a visitor, though she did not mention any of them by name.
She also dismissed what she called “rumours” about racist taunts, saying none had been reported and the school’s investigation had found “no real evidence that such language was part of the incident that day.”
Godfrey, the headmaster, went on to criticize students who didn’t report inappropriate behaviours by referencing people who kept quiet during the Holocaust.
Wilson said the school’s investigation into the incident was “egregiously deficient” and completely ignored the alleged slurs.
The lawyer for the defendants argued the school had to discipline Elgammal and Velshi after they engaged in a “two on one” fight with another boy, even though it happened off school grounds.
Both were aware of the school’s code of conduct and had already been suspended for other incidents, David Tompkins said.
He also said officials didn’t identify the suspended students in their communications with other students or the school community, and therefore couldn’t possibly have defamed them.
A former classmate of the plaintiffs testified that everyone nonetheless knew exactly who was being discussed.
“It was quite clear what they were talking about,” Chloe Reis said on the stand. “The school vilified its own students in front of their peers.”
Elgammal and Velshi were pulled from the school by their parents shortly afterward and sent to separate high schools. Both were charged with assault, but the charges were withdrawn the following year.
Velshi’s father said they didn’t bother appealing the suspension because it was clear from administrators’ comments that it would be futile.
“Mr. Godfrey had already made up his mind,” Ismet Velshi testified.
“It’s one thing to discipline my son… but to publicly humiliate Omar and Danial in a public forum,” he said, noting his son felt targeted as a Muslim.
“For this investigation, I will say (school officials) were racist,” he said.
Ismet Velshi, who is also a plaintiff, returns to the stand Tuesday. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Also named in the suits are the Toronto French School and Lena Sarkissian, who was chairwoman of the school’s board at the time and who penned the letter to Toronto Life.