Three days after a prominent St. Matthew High School teacher and coach was charged with sexually assaulting students, the Ottawa Catholic School Board says it is looking into how it handled earlier complaints made against him.
On Tuesday, Ottawa police charged 57-year-old Rick Watkins, previously known as Rick Despatie, with three counts of sexual assault, three counts of sexual interference and three counts of sexual exploitation of a young person. The alleged offences occurred between the fall of 2020 and March 2021, police said, and involved students under age 14.
Police said at the time they believed there could be more victims.
On Friday, Director of Education Thomas D’Amico acknowledged that other parents and students had said they complained about Despatie/Watkins in the past, but nothing was done.
“We heard from some former students and parents that allegations had been brought forward to the previous school administration, yet they did not act on these concerns,” D’Amico said in an email sent to the school community Friday afternoon. “Our Human Resource department staff has begun a review to determine if we failed to address these concerns.”
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.
D’Amico also apologized “to any former students who have experienced harm by someone in a position of trust. No student in our care should be subjected to any type of harm, especially when attending their own school, where so many staff work hard to create a safe and caring environment.”
Despatie/Watkins taught at St. Matthew in Orléans for more than 25 years and was coach of the school’s successful girls basketball teams. All of the alleged offences occurred during his duties as a teacher, police said. He was suspended by the school board on March 9, the day the most recent allegations came to light, and the board says it is co-operating with the police investigation.
The investigation into how the board handled earlier complaints will be performed by the board’s human resources department, with a separate third-party investigation by the Ontario College of Teachers. The board asked anyone who made prior complaints about Watkins/Despatie to contact the OCSB’s superintendent of human resources.
Both reviews are separate from the criminal prosecution now before the courts, D’Amico said.
“Please know that we will also be reviewing the processes that are in place to prevent and to report misconduct,” his letter said. Among those processes are the training staff receive on professional boundaries, the legal requirement to report suspected neglect or child abuse to the Children’s Aid Society, the duty of staff to report concerns about misconduct as well as how teachers are supposed to be removed from the classroom and the school while complaints are investigated.
In his letter, D’Amico said the board was providing assistance to students and staff who needed it: “I want to reiterate, if you are struggling, please let the school Principal, classroom teacher, guidance counsellor or Chaplaincy leader know. We will work with you to provide support.”
Ottawa Citizen Headline News
Sign up to receive daily headline news from Ottawa Citizen, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.
By clicking on the sign up button you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You may unsubscribe any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc. | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300