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Former Halifax-area teacher receives suspended sentence for student assault

WATCH: A former Halifax-area high school teacher who assaulted one of his students last year -- will not go to jail. Elizabeth McSheffrey reports.

A former Halifax-area teacher won’t be incarcerated for assaulting one of his students last fall, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever work in the classroom again.

Derek Stephenson received a suspended sentence at Dartmouth Provincial Court on Monday in relation to the October 2018 incident at Cole Harbour District High School, which was videotaped on another student’s cell phone.

The sentence comes with an 18-month probation on holding any job — paid or unpaid — that puts him in a position of trust over children, but the criminal conviction on his record means it’s unlikely he’ll ever teach again.

Stephenson, 43, has also voluntarily surrendered his Nova Scotia teaching licence.

“Schools are supposed to be places of safety,” said Chief Judge Pamela Williams in her decision.

“When there are incidents that cause student safety to be at risk as a result of actions by teachers that’s certainly very concerning.”

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READ MORE: Case of Halifax-area high school teacher accused of assaulting student put off until January

According to an agreed statement of facts, Stephenson yanked the headphones out of the victim’s ears as he walked by Stephenson’s desk before the start of class on Oct. 3, 2018. Stephenson threw them to the back of the classroom and taunted the student, when the student told him to “shut up.”

The student grabbed a lanyard containing Stephenson’s keys and went to pick up his earbuds, when Stephenson grabbed him by the shoulders from behind with both arms and pushed him into the wall.

“Mr. Stephenson then wrapped his arms around (the student), turned him around and took him down to the floor,” reads the statement.

“Mr. Stephenson then tried to put (the student) in a head-lock, but (the student) managed to get free of him and dropped the lanyard.”

The student’s glasses were damaged as they flew across the room, and the headphones were stripped of the plastic coating.

The end of the altercation was caught on camera by a witness in the classroom, and Stephenson was later charged with assault, mischief and breach of probation.

The latter two charges were dropped on Monday.

Nova Scotia says province’s teachers to undergo mandatory criminal record check every 5 years
Nova Scotia says province’s teachers to undergo mandatory criminal record check every 5 years

In November, Stephenson pleaded guilty to assault, sparing the student the likelihood of having to testify in court.

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Crown attorney Gayle Karding identified the plea as a significant mitigating factor in his sentencing, but said the most important element — ensuring public safety — was still met by the sentence he received.

“He surrendered his licence, he has a conviction, which certainly should impact his ability to ever be in a position of employment, not just teaching, but volunteering or employment that involves interaction with young people,” she told reporters at the courthouse on Monday.

Stephenson apologized to the student’s family before his sentence was read. He said he was “very sorry” for the harm he caused the student, who — according to victim impact statements — has since required counselling, lost all trust in teachers, lost friends at school, and declined to confide in family members.

“I had several months to reflect on what happened in that room and I believed for the longest time I was intervening on your son’s behalf,” he told the student’s parents.

“I see the arrogance of that now… I’m very sorry he’s having a hard time.”

The boy’s mother wept as Stephenson’s sentence was read out in court. It includes an 18-month ban on weapons possession and a requirement that Stephenson participate in any anger management, therapy or counselling programs deemed necessary by a probation officer.

Stephenson is not allowed to contact the student directly or indirectly, except through lawyers, and will have to pay $70 through a court clerk to replace the student’s headphones by the end of the month.

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia says record-check procedures for teachers under review after alleged assault

Stephenson was on probation at the time of the assault that required him to “keep the peace and be of good behaviour.” Court documents show he was previously charged with assault and uttering threats towards former intimate partners.

The documents also show colleagues, including a former vice-principal at the school, were aware of the legal problems and acted as character witnesses.

In 2010, he was charged with assaulting his ex-wife. That charge was later dismissed and a judge ordered a 12-month peace bond.

In 2012, he was arrested for assaulting his ex-wife and their daughter. He pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-wife and was given a conditional discharge in 2013. In his pre-sentence report, Barrett Khan, who was the vice-principal of Cole Harbour District High School at the time, provided a character reference letter.

On Monday, the judge noted Stephenson had a history of mental health and anger management issues, for which he has sought professional help. Around the time of the October 2018 assault, he was in the midst of a stressful battle for custody of children and diagnosed with a “major depressive episode,” said Williams.

She told Stephenson that despite his stressful life circumstances at the time, his actions were “in no way justified,” but added that the public nature of the trial has acted as a deterrent for him to re-offend.

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New legislation has been launched since the start of his trial that would force teachers in Nova Scotia to undergo criminal record checks before they’re hired.

— With files from Alexander Quon