The future of Havergal College is bright – if we want it to be

An Open Letter from Andrew Rogerson of Rogerson Law Group to Dr. Katrina Samson, new headmistress of Havergal College

Dear Dr. Samson,

Congratulations on your appointment. Your resume is impressive, and I am pleased to read that your appointment was the result of “a thoughtful and comprehensive process.” Havergal College also says that the recruitment process included “community feedback, previous recruitment data and a commissioned talent scouting report.” I certainly hope this is true.

As of July 1, 2021, you will lead a prestigious girls’ school with over 120 years of history. Havergal College first opened its doors in 1894 with only 40 students, and over a century later that number has grown to almost 1,000 young ladies from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Named after Frances Ridley Havergal – an exemplary Victorian woman who was a composer, hymnist, author, and humanitarian – Havergal College was committed to the education of women long before it was commonplace. Unfortunately, much has changed since Ms. Frances Havergal’s time.

The school describes itself as “a pre-eminent independent school for girls” providing young women with an “exceptional education,” and an environment that “encourages both inquiry and curiosity, and celebrates community.” However, this polished description is a far way off from what students experience at this school.

In October 2019, through no fault of her own, my daughter Grace was forced out of Havergal College. Grace’s expulsion followed two years’ worth of persistent and ongoing physical, psychological, and emotional bullying behaviour by another girl in Grace’s class. The school not only failed to take action to stop the violence, but it is my firmly held belief that they also endeavoured to cover it up because the bully is from an influential family who donates significantly to the school.

My only goal has been to ensure my daughter can learn and grow in a safe environment amongst her friends. After repeatedly trying to rectify the situation directly with the school administration and getting nowhere, I filed a Statement of Claim against Havergal College, its Headmistress, Catherine Misson, and its Head of the Junior School, Kate White. The claim is for damages is in the amount of $5.5 million and the case is currently ongoing.

Shortly after I filed the Statement of Claim against Havergal College on behalf of my daughter, several other students and their parents came forward to share their experiences of bullying and trauma at Havergal. One, in particular, experienced bullying so intense that she attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions.

So in April 2020, we commenced proceedings on behalf of Jane Doe (her identity is protected by the court) and her mother against Havergal College, its Vice Principal Seonaid Davis and two teenage girls, whose names are also protected by a publication ban. Jane Doe suffered extreme, unrelenting bullying from classmates while attending Havergal College, and the school in no way provided a safe environment for her. The claim also cites Seonaid Davis, the Vice Principal, as a bully. This claim is for damages and compensation in the amount of $33 million and is also ongoing.

With two public lawsuits filed against the school for bullying, it did not come as a surprise to learn Havergal College’s previous headmistress, Mrs. Catherine Misson, resigned her position just 15 months into a renewable 5-year contract.

What Havergal Could Be with Strong Leadership

With Mrs. Mission’s departure, Havergal College has the opportunity to take a hard look at the current school culture and policies and determine how they can better prioritize the wellbeing of the students over the school’s bottom line.

I had planned to recommend anti-bullying best practices for Havergal to adopt, but all the policies in the world won’t make Havergal a safer place unless the powers that be enforce them. Both serious cases referenced above involving my daughter and Jane Doe were brought to the attention of the highest-level at Havergal and rebuffed – instead insisting the victims were to blame. There has been a consistent lack of action on the part of the school in dealing with the problem, particularly when the bully comes from an influential family.

“Our faculty and staff exemplify the qualities we seek to develop in our students – they are intellectually engaging, gutsy, curious, innovative, and dedicated with strong personal values and a commitment to healthy living and lifelong learning.”

– Havergal College’s ’Faculty & Staff’ Webpage

Dr. Samson, the school praises you as a “vibrant, passionate educator who is committed to a student-centred approach.” But what I would like to know, is will you apply that “student-centred approach” when it comes to bullying – even if the bully is a child of a major financial donor? I truly hope that you will.

If Havergal College would acknowledge its role in allowing bullying to take place in the past, and make a commitment to adhere to its anti-bullying policies rather than treating them as window dressing, it could begin to create a safer environment for its current and future students – and perhaps finally reflect the values it so effusively promotes.

Havergal College can restore the integrity and reputation of the institution Frances Ridley Havergal founded – if you, Dr. Samson, start making changes today.

Andrew Rogerson
Rogerson Law Group
Toronto: (416) 504-2259