Eight boys arrested in alleged sexual assault of four girls

In a further shock to a Toronto school system still grappling with two homicides during the past five months, eight boys aged 12 and 13 face sexual assault charges after four girls told of being molested on the grounds of an Etobicoke middle school.

The assaults allegedly occurred after a basketball game at Smithfield Middle School in the city's northwest corner last Tuesday afternoon.

Police responded to a complaint by one of the girls, witnesses were interviewed and the eight boys were arrested early yesterday morning. They appeared in court on Finch Avenue West, where a further court date was set for Nov. 8.

"It was basically a situation of the girls being held down while they were fondled, through their clothing, so there were no major injuries," a source familiar with the investigation said.

"All the same, it was pretty traumatic."

The four girls are back in class and getting support while the accused will continue their studies at home, Toronto District School Board education superintendent Trevor Ludski said.

Arriving at Smithfield to pick up her son's belongings yesterday, a distraught mother said she has seen video footage of the accused and the alleged victims together that day and insisted her son is innocent.

She said two incidents occurred that afternoon, and that he played no role in the one over which he faces charges.

She also complained of not being properly informed about the charges.

"How did the media get here before the parents know what's going on?" she asked.

Principal Rupert Costello said school authorities delayed informing parents because the investigation has up to now primarily been a police matter.

Mingling in the lunchtime sunshine, few students seemed to have heard about the allegations, which come on the heels of another alleged school-related sexual assault in Toronto's north end that police believe occurred last October but which did not surface until this past summer.

In that alleged attack, four male students at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute near Keele Street and Finch Avenue are accused of assaulting a 14-year-old Grade 9 Muslim girl in a washroom.

That alleged incident came to light only after 15-year-old Jordan Manners was fatally shot in a hallway at the school in May. An advisory panel headed by Toronto criminal lawyer Julian Falconer was set up to examine safety concerns at the high school, which has approximately 800 students. The sex-assault allegations relayed to the panel resulted in four males now aged 15 to 18 being charged with gang sexual assault, forcible confinement and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.

Roughly 800 students in Grades 6, 7 and 8 attend Smithfield, located on Mount Olive Drive, near Kipling and Steeles Avenues.

The students are drawn from a diverse, multi-ethnic population. English is a second language for more than 60 per cent of the pupils, 25 per cent of whom have been in Canada for five years or less. About 30 different languages are spoken, Smithfield's website says.

Its discipline record is uneven. Records obtained by The Globe and Mail from the Toronto District School Board last year showed that, of the 10 middle schools under its jurisdiction, Smithfield had the third highest suspension rate: From September, 2005, to February, 2006, there were 79 student suspensions.

The charges laid yesterday appear to be a first for Smithfield, TDSB education director Gerry Connelly said.

"It always is [a shock], and we will certainly be co-operating with the police in their investigation," she said.

"These are very young children and it is tragic to see this happening ... but we don't have any evidence of this happening in the past. ... I have every confidence in the staff and administration of the school."