Harassment, Bullying Issues Rock Theatre Department at Canadian College

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It was reported this morning that the co-chairs of the theatre department at Dawson College have resigned their positions over the school's response to harassment and abuse allegations that date back almost twenty years. 

In her resignation letter, Kimberly Barfuss states, 

"What I can say is as a department we tried to do our best to be accountable, responsible, reflect and take action in the best interests of our students and the College intervened," she says. "Their intervention and subsequent decision to undo much of what the department put forth is what I absolutely do not agree with, cannot support, and will not be seen as condoning and so have resigned in protest."

Co-chair, Carolyn Guillet also resigned. Barfuss says earlier in April another Theatre Department Co-Chair also resigned. 

The issues surround allegations that were brought forward against longtime theatre teacher, Winston Sutton. 

 Winston Sutton

Winston Sutton

Twenty women came forward with accusations of bullying and harassment, much of which took place during classes. Allegations range from public humiliation, inappropriate comments about weight, looks, or potential, to suggestions that students undress for each other, or make comments about their sex lives.

They say they were told this was all part of his teaching method. 

One former student said, “He [Sutton] would compare students, berate them, pick out favourites, build you up and then tear you down,” she told Global News. “He even told me in my final meeting that he wanted to break me to see if I was cut out for the industry and I passed the test."

Another student says he encouraged her and her male co-star in a rehearsal to lie naked onstage together to develop more convincing intimacy for their performance, which she refused.

The college launched an internal investigation where the former students were interviewed and Sutton was suspended. However, as of spring 2018, students and teachers tell CJAD 800 that Sutton has been quietly reinstated.

When the school apparently balked on making real changes and addressing the harassment issues, that caused both Guille and Barfuss to resign. 

It also has sent a terrible message to the students as well. "The fact that we never got an official response doesn't feel respectful," says a former Dawson student who filed a complaint. "It took a lot of courage to come forward and to not get an official response just doesn't feel like they took us seriously."

According to the school, they were following the laws that were in place when it comes to investigations like these. 

"You know regardless of how emotional some issues become we have to follow the letter of the law and within that the collective agreements and just all the mechanisms that are in place to safeguard everyone," said Dawson College Communications Coordinator, Donna Varrica. "12 people can say 'I don't want that person to work here' if that person has every right to work here then that would be overruled based on legal advice, based on collective agreements, based on labor laws."

When it came to the former students who brought forward their claims, Varrica says none of the complainants were notified about the conclusion of the investigation because they are not currently enrolled, and the Dawson harassment policy no longer applies to them. 

 The theatre at Dawson College

The theatre at Dawson College

While Mr. Sutton hasn't responded to questions regarding the claims, he did send an email in January to students that suggest that the allegations were racially motivated. 

The email, obtained by CJAD, stated, 

"To create lies this grave is devious and defamatory and is a degradation of me as a teacher, a person and a Black man," he wrote. "However, it's unfortunate that such allegations will always gain traction among those, ready to believe such sleaze, when attributed to people who look like me."

It's clear to me that there are issues at Dawson College. When twenty former students and many more share their own abuses, there are obviously problems there that need addressing. I also think it's interesting that the school's comment included "collective agreements" as a reason for what the results of the investigation were. That suggests that tenure, or the Canadian equivalent, probably played a role in allowing Sutton to remain as a faculty member there.

And for Mr. Sutton to reportedly suggest that the former student had some sort of racist motivation in coming forward, is simply a poor detraction from a larger issue of his behavior. 

We'll be keeping an eye on this story, but as of now, given the history of complaints falling on deaf ears and the school's current response to allegations of abuse, I doubt how much Dawson College values the safety of their students.  

If anyone has more information regarding this story, please email us at onstageblog@gmail.com