Kirk Makin Justice Reporter
From Friday’s Globe and Mail, Friday, Jun. 26, 2009 07:52AM EDT
A Muslim teenager is taking on an elite Toronto private school, accusing it of defaming him in connection with a violent racial incident last year.
In the first defamation lawsuit ever launched by a youth, 15-year-old Omar Elgammal claims that he was wrongly suspended from Toronto French School for beating up a visitor and then compared to genocidal Nazis at a school assembly called by TFS headmaster John Godfrey.
However, Mr. Godfrey, a former Liberal MP, insisted on Thursday that the school investigated fully before deciding to take action against Omar for his role in attacking a former student.
“Beating people up is not a way of settling problems,” Mr. Godfrey said.
On Oct. 24, 2008, Omar and a friend were involved in a punch-up after the visitor allegedly taunted Omar by calling his father “bin Laden,” claiming that he was a terrorist and pretending to push a hand-held detonator.
According to the Elgammal family’s statement of claim, the visitor mocked Omar and his friend by saying: “What are you guys going to do, call out Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah?”
Omar’s lawsuit says school authorities interviewed him for just 10 minutes. It states that they placed unwarranted stock in an inaccurate account from a female student who regularly bought drugs from the visiting ex-student in return for oral sex.
The family admits that some sort of physical altercation did occur.
Several days later, Mr. Godfrey called a school assembly and referred to the Nazi Holocaust. While the lawsuit alleges that he compared Omar and his friends to Nazis, Mr. Godfrey insisted yesterday that he was merely criticizing students who had stood by, doing nothing, as Omar and his friend “beat up” the visitor.
“It’s one thing for people to conduct attacks on other people, but it’s not a whole lot better for others folks who could have stopped it to stand by and let it happen,” Mr. Godfrey said.
The Elgammal statement of claim, prepared by lawyer Jeffery Wilson, states that Omar was charged with assault, but that the Crown later withdrew the charge.
It also accuses school principal Heidi Gollert of waving Omar’s father, Ibrahim Elgammal aside when he later attempted to raise the issue of the racial taunts. Ms. Gollert “refused to entertain any further discussions and relied upon the unquestioned authority of a private school to act as it chooses,” the lawsuit alleges.
Both sides claim to have many students who can back up their allegations about which boys were the actual aggressors.
“What I can say is that we took considerable care at every stage of the way to verify the statements that were made, and we’ve got tons of documentation,” Mr. Godfrey said on Friday.
Queen’s University law professor Nicholas Bala, an expert in youth and the law, said that a major reason youths have not attempted to sue for defamation in the past is that plaintiffs must be capable of showing that they suffered actual damages.
The Elgammal family is seeking almost $325,000 from TFS and its administrators. A portion relates to almost $15,000 in school fees lost because Omar could not complete his year at the school, plus $12,000 in legal fees.
Norah Elgammal said in the interview that Omar had to be placed in a public school because private schools that had initially accepted him retracted their offers upon hearing about the incident at TFS.
“It came to us as a shock that supportive parents like us are not even consulted when an event like this takes place,” Mrs. Elgammal said yesterday. “Our son was terrorized when I picked him up. I trusted them with my son in all confidence, and they took advantage of it.”
The lawsuit states that she and her husband enrolled Omar at TFS so that he could make valuable future contacts in a private-school setting.
“A Liberal MP should know how to deal with people; respectable parents who have supported the school,” Mrs. Elgammal said. “For me, this is very revealing of the Liberal attitude towards minorities and Muslims in general.”
Mr. Godfrey said that publicity can only hurt both TFS and Omar’s family: “He has got a lovely family and we don’t want to make matters worse by saying things about him,” Mr. Godfrey said. “It’s just really a sad situation. The whole point of this school is that it stands for pluralism and diversity and international values. This is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country.”