The Blurring of Boundaries

Toronto Waldorf Academy




The Toronto Star reported that “a Toronto man has been charged in connection with the 2008 sexual assault of a teenage girl he allegedly tutored.” This man appears to have been a teacher at the Toronto Waldorf Academy, as that school swiftly “removed a staff biography for a man named Ryan McCombe from their website. The private school also removed a video of man of that name at a 2014 school barbecue from their Facebook page.”


The deleted biography described Ryan McCombe as “A talented musician, coach, and event organizer, Ryan has acted as the head of Physical Education and Music at Waldorf Academy since 2004. With a great sense of humour and a gift for inspiring children, Ryan plays a significant role in community music and has helped to transform extracurricular sports at Waldorf Academy. In addition to these roles, Ryan has acted as the Eurythmy accompanist and cares for and organizes our German volunteers, ensuring they have a wonderful experience at our school.”




Although rare, this is not the first time that a Waldorf teacher was connected with inappropriate behaviour. In December 2010, The Toronto Star revealed that Robert Pickering, a teacher at the Toronto Waldorf School in Vaughan, was charged “after two former students alleged they were sexually assaulted decades ago.


“Acting Det. Sgt. Joanne Waite said a 56-year-old teacher has been charged after two victims recently came forward.


“Police said the attacks allegedly happened when both girls were 17 years old, in 1985 and 1992, at the Toronto Waldorf School in Vaughan.


“They’re not friends or acquaintances. They didn’t know each other,” Waite said. “The connection between them is really the school.””


Six months later, in June 2011, Thornhill pleaded guilty to those assaults.


We covered similar accounts at Green Meadow Waldorf School in 2014, as well as the arrest back in April 2011 of a Swedish man, teaching in a German Waldorf school, for “alleged sexual abuse of boys at an orphanage in Haiti and also in Berlin.”


Other anecdotal accounts can be found online, such as Margaret Sachs’ statement in 2011 about teachers at Highland Hall Waldorf School, California:


“I saw many examples of problematic Waldorf teachers receiving preferential treatment, something that was not given to their young victims.


“There was the teacher I'll call Mr. S, who had  to leave the school only because a group of parents went to war with the faculty over it. Then he popped up as a class teacher in a nearby Waldorf school where, according to one of his former students, the girls complained constantly about his touching them.


“Then there was the teacher who groped my daughter. He was brought back to the school when enough time had passed that most people had no knowledge of his history. 


“Then there was the piano teacher who was downloading child porn. They had no choice about him because he was caught in a police sting and arrested. 


“Amazingly, the situation you describe with the teacher's pedophile son was so well hushed up that we were completely unaware of it when we were embroiled in a similar situation ONLY TWO OR THREE MONTHS LATER. 


"All this in one school school, and this is just what we know about.”


In November 2015, a School Inspection Service Progress Monitoring Report for the Rudolf Steiner School Kings’ Langley, was damning regarding how that school dealt with complaints related to child protection matters: “Over the last year there have been incidents at the school which have given rise to complaints from parents, where the school has not always taken the appropriate decisive action in accordance with its policy. The school has not investigated either fully or impartially important matters that were raised by parents nor considered them in the broader context of risk to children. There is a lack of communication between those handling complaints and those in charge of child protection. Where the school has made reference to local authorities such as the local children’s safeguarding board or the police, staff have followed properly the professional advice they have been given.”


Although thankfully our own children never experienced this kind of issue at the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School, and none of the abundant rumours about that place were in any way connected to sexual abuse (they were all about unchecked bullying, smearing of families, and staff embezzling), it is of concern that these reports, either in the news or online keep cropping up about Steiner Waldorf schools worldwide. Yet, the notion that the teachers know better what’s good for the child than the parent, was present there too. One teacher, Mrs Cunningham, once told us that her child grew up in spite of her as his mother.


According to Grégoire Perra, this blurring of the roles between teacher and parent is something that is instilled in teachers during their training: “When I did my training at l'Institut Rudolf Steiner de Chatou, the trainee Kindy teachers told us that they were often told to be very maternal with the children, to initiate cuddles, to take the children onto their knees etc., Those are pedagogical indications, not spontaneous gestures. It was ceaselessly drummed into them that the Kindy teacher should be ‘like a mother’ for the children in her care. In her passionate work called “psychological bullying” (“le harcèlement moral”), Marie-France Hirigoyen explains that this kind of developed manipulation is like some sort of hypnosis used to put the future victim to sleep. 80% of it takes place in non-verbal communication like gestures, looks, etc., which slowly control people. […] It’s a pedagogical practice of these schools. […] one that creates a profound confusion between what belongs in the family sphere and what belongs in the professional domain. It is a very serious matter to try and become a substitute for someone’s parents.”


Add to that a strong and pervasive belief in karma, as Pete Karaiskos puts it, “children, according to Steiner, have a pre-established karma with their Waldorf teachers that is even stronger than their connection to their parents”, and is it any wonder that potentially dangerous adults would be attracted to an environment where such blurring of boundaries are not only present, but also pedagogically encouraged?


Creating an atmosphere where potential predators can thrive is definitely not offering, as the Toronto Waldorf Academy states“a learning environment that is stimulating, nurturing, and creative, and an academic approach that prepares children for the challenges ahead.”






Update [12 April 2016]: The Globe and Mail revealed that The Waldorf Academy had been warned about Ryan McCombe but did nothing about it: “The school received a letter in September, 2014, from an “unregulated psychotherapist” alleging inappropriate behaviour between one of its teachers and the therapist’s clients six years earlier, according to the independent reviewer. The letter did not disclose if the alleged activity had taken place at the school. The school contacted the CAS, which declined to investigate [...] After questioning the teacher, the Waldorf Academy’s legal counsel determined there was insufficient evidence for the school to act upon, and while an administrator informally monitored the teacher, no formal restrictions were put in place, the report stated.”


Apparently the person who investigated the matter said “the decision to maintain a teacher who was the subject of an anonymous, historical complaint without formal restrictions was reasonable in view of these facts”.


It’s hard to imagine any parent who would feel the same.


Update [15 April 2016]: CBC News Toronto reported that “The Waldorf Academy's "Parent/Guardian Code of Conduct," obtained by CBC News, asks signees to "disengage from communication with fellow parents that place blame" and "refrain from 'third party talk', i.e., the passing of information, hearsay and speculation."

"We feel scared to speak," said one parent who asked not to be named. "It's like [the school] is saying, 'be silent and accept whatever we say.'" [...]


“"Conduct deemed inappropriate," the letter reads, "will be dealt with immediately to resolve and repair the situation. If there is no willingness or effort by the parent to work constructively toward a resolution, the School reserves the right to terminate or decline re-enrollment." [...]


“In a letter to parents, obtained by CBC News, the school says the "anonymous, historical, unsubstantiated claim" gave it "no legal grounds to terminate Mr. McCombe's employment."

The school did not notify police and the teacher continued working at the school up until his arrest in January. [...]


“The parent calls the school's handling of the situation "shameful" and says administrators should have taken the letter directly to Toronto Police.

“But a third-party review found the school's conduct after receiving the letter was "reasonable and appropriate in the circumstance."”






Related Articles



A Failure to Act

Sexual Abuse in Green Meadow Waldorf School



Sex Abuse Cases: Waldorf School Suspends Teacher



 
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