Ottawa teacher jail-bound after sexual assault, exploitation of students

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

September 15, 2023

By Avanthika Anand

Robert Lavergne, a former teacher at St. Patrick’s High School, to serve 17-month jail sentence

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Four years after being convicted of sexual assault and sexual exploitation of his students, an Ottawa Catholic high school teacher is at last jail-bound. 

In March 2018, Robert Lavergne was charged with one count of sexual assault and another of sexual exploitation of a girl under the age of 18. Ottawa police said the offences occurred between 2014 and 2016 at St. Patrick’s High School, where the now-61-year-old was teaching at the time.

In May 2018, Lavergne was charged with three more counts of sexual assault related to two girls aged 18 or older. According to police, those offences happened between 2004 and 2010, also when he was teaching at the school.  

In the Ontario Court of Justice, Lavergne was found guilty on two counts of sexual assault and one of sexual exploitation involving two students by Judge Catherine Kehoe in 2019, according to court documents obtained by CBC News. 

A year later, Kehoe sentenced Lavergne to 17 months in jail to be followed by two years of probation, noting that the former teacher established a pattern of “grooming, physical contact, sexual comments and inappropriate sexual touching with female students.” 

But on the same day that sentence was delivered, Lavergne was released on bail. 

He has been living free since, and has spent the last few years appealing his conviction and sentence on the grounds that they were “unfit,” according to court documents.

‘Dirty, angry and exploited’

Lavergne’s conviction appeal was dismissed in 2022, and his sentence appeal was dismissed this week. 

Court documents show that Lavergne taught industrial arts at the Alta Vista high school where the offences took place for many years. He also ran an after-school girls-only welding club, which was the subject of an interview on CBC’s radio show Ottawa Morning in 2017. 

During that interview, Lavergne said he started the club because, “there wasn’t enough women in the trades,” and that girls were “more comfortable in here.”

But a Court of Appeal decision penned by Justice David Paciocco recall his student victims describing their experiences with him as anything but comfortable.

The documents recall Kehoe’s findings that Lavergne “frequently, initiated unwanted hugs, massaged [the minor student’s] shoulders, and touched her breast under her bra.”

“On one occasion he flipped her upside down while she was wearing a skirt and pressed on her inner thigh, purportedly while demonstrating a pressure point,” Paciocco wrote.

“On one occasion he touched her after using his authority to clear the class to get her alone, and on another came into a back room where he kept a futon, while she was changing, and offered her wine.” 

The documents state Lavergne also slapped both students’ buttocks while they were in his classroom. 

Lavergne’s victims provided impact statements that were detailed in the appeal court documents — one of them said she experienced an inability to sleep, feelings of isolation, fear of men, loss of ambition and more in the aftermath of the assaults.

She also linked the assault to her self-harm and suicide attempts, while the other victim wrote that she was “left feeling dirty, angry and exploited.” 

Paciocco further wrote the teacher maintained informal relationships with many of his teenaged students, exchanged phone numbers with some of them, drove some of them home, gave them condoms and gifts. 

He wrote Lavergne’s interactions with his students often involved physical contact, and the classroom atmosphere was sexualized. 

Abuse of trust, power

Noting the circumstances, Paciocco ruled the 17-month jail sentence was not unfit. 

“With respect to children, even relatively unobtrusive touching can cause extensive psychological and emotional harm, notwithstanding that the harm to bodily integrity is at the lower end of the scale,” the appeal court ruling documents read. 

“Here, in [the minor victim’s] case the touching was repeated on numerous occasions, over a long period of time, and it occurred in public, which increased the risk of her shame, and embarrassment.” 

Paciocco added, “[Lavergne] not only exploited her immaturity but in the case of both [students], he abused his elevated power as their teacher to treat them as sexual objects, a highly morally culpable engagement in wrongful conduct in breach of trust. To make matters worse, he did this in a context where the trial judge found him to have groomed [the minor victim].” 

Lavergne is now not only set to go to jail, but will also be on probation for two years after he’s released. He is also banned from being alone with anyone under the age of 16.

In an emailed statement, the Ottawa Catholic School Board said Lavergne was suspended with pay in February 2018, but then suspended without pay during the summer of that year. It added that after his conviction in 2019, the board sought to terminate his employment but Lavergne handed in his resignation before that could be completed.