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School CP - July 2008

Corpun file 20387


London Free Press, Ontario, 16 July 2008

Bum rap ends in absolute discharge for Mennonites

Judge called educators 'good people caught in culture clash' after strapping of seven boys led them into a highly publicized nightmare in the criminal justice system

By Jane Sims

ST. THOMAS -- The judge called the Mennonite educators "good people who are caught in a clash of cultures."

The policy they worked under at their Aylmer-area school allowed for corporal punishment with a belt -- a practice Canada's highest court has deemed unlawful.

The strapping of seven boys over their clothes led the principal and kindergarten teacher at the Old Colony Christian School and their supportive community into the limelight and the criminal justice system -- and yesterday, to absolute discharges.

Johan Penner, 30, and Anna Klassen, 42, quietly left the courtroom here after the decision. In the hall, surrounded by family and friends, a wave of relief washed over them.

Several women, including Klassen cried. Another man put his arm around Penner's shoulder.

Then, one by one, each member of the large contingent stepped forward to shake hands with defence lawyer Gord Cudmore.

"This is the type of case that the discharge provisions were made for, where someone runs afoul with the strict interpretation of the law, but aren't anywhere close to what we call criminals," Cudmore said outside of court.

"As a result, they shouldn't be branded as such."

Absolute discharges ensure Penner and Klassen won't be saddled with criminal records.

"They are glad this nightmare is over," Cudmore said.

In court, Cudmore told Ontario Court Justice John Getliffe his clients were "law-abiding, peaceful citizens. They simply did not know they were coming close to breaking the law."

Their arrests came out of an unrelated investigation by police and child-welfare workers looking into the suspected assault on a nine-year-old boy.

They discovered the boy and six others had been assaulted at school with a belt without a buckle on the buttocks over the clothes.

The children's transgressions were for routine horseplay -- one left school at lunch for the woods, another spun a friend around at recess.

One wouldn't co-operate with his teacher, another broke a fire alarm.

Penner struck six of them. Klassen hit one.

The school policy, approved by parents, allowed discipline with an object. But unlike the controversial Church of God case in 2001, where church leaders defied the law, the community in this case was ready to listen to law-makers.

The policy has since been abandoned.

Both Penner and Klassen cooperated with police. Cudmore called the ordeal "a terrible experience" for both.

Assistant Crown attorney Kim Johnson asked for suspended sentences and 12 months probation.

Cudmore noted in one pre-sentence report, one boy said: "Mr. Penner told him he did it because he loved him and Mr. Penner hated to do it."

Getliffe told the court he recalled a "spare the rod, spoil the child" culture and the strap used in school.

"I managed to survive," he said, adding young people recognized the intent was "for our own good and out of love."

He called the case "somewhat unusual" because the parents of the children consented to the punishment.

Even a decade ago, he said, the educators wouldn't have run "afoul of the law."


The Criminal Code allows reasonable corporal punishment by parents and teachers, but in 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled using an object for discipline "may be seen as unreasonable."

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