Omar Elgammal and Danial Velshi suing the Toronto French School for defamation and racial profiling
A fist fight off school property that allegedly lasted “less than a minute” led to the removal of two Muslim students from a Toronto private school. The pair is now suing officials at the Toronto French School, claiming how they handled the fallout amounted to defamation and the effect of a “deficient” investigation was racial profiling.
Omar Elgammal and Danial Velshi, both 20, are suing former headmaster John Godfrey, principal Heidi Gollert, and board member Lena Sarkissian in three claims that amount to $1.6 million.
The allegations have not been proven.
Monday was the first day in the trial that is estimated to last three weeks.
Elgammal and Velshi were both in Grade 9 when the event that sparked their initial suspension occurred, a fist fight with another male in Cheltenham Park near the school at Lawrence Ave. E. and Bayview Ave. on Oct. 23, 2008. No one was seriously hurt in the fight, according to the opening statement made by their counsel Jeffery Wilson. Neither side has indicated any weapons were involved.
An individual that wasn’t a student at the school hurled racial taunts at both students, calling Elgammal “a terrorist, calling his father Osama bin Laden and making gestures of terrorist with a bomb hand-detonator,” said Wilson.
The same individual also referred to Velshi’s mother, who is from the Philippines, as a “maid.”
He was identified as the son of an employee at the school, but did not attend the school himself, according to Wilson’s opening statement.
The defendants’ lawyer, David Tompkins, said the incident “escalated because of the actions of Omar and Danial — particularly Omar.” He also noted that both Elgammal and Velshi had been disciplined by the school before, including previous suspensions. When cross-examining a witness later, Tompkins said the fight was “unprovoked” by that individual.
The individual Tompkins described as a “victim” was at the school allegedly to deal drugs to a student at the school, a girl whose mother was on the committee of the school’s board, according to Wilson’s opening statement.
Wilson said this student’s mother reported the incident, while Tomkins said it came to the attention of the administration as a result of a student discussing it with a guidance counsellor.
Wilson said there was no recognition of the conflict of interest inherent in the parents of these individuals being intimately involved in the school, contributing to an investigation that was “egregiously deficient.”
“The defendants failed to conduct a proper fair and even-handed investigation,” said Wilson in his opening submission. Elgammal was suspended for 21 days and Velshi for 20 days, in addition to the school recommending Velshi be expelled, he added.
After the suspension, headmaster Godfrey, a former Liberal MP, led an assembly on Nov. 3 to discuss the pair’s behaviour as “the way of a bully, a thug, a coward,” according to Wilson’s opening statement. The quote came from a transcript of the assembly that is uncontested by the defendants.
The plaintiffs’ first witness, Chloe Reis, said as a student at the assembly, it was clear the comments referred to Elgammal and Velshi. When cross-examined by Tomkins, the 21-year-old said their names were not specifically used by Godfrey.
At the same assembly, Reis said Godfrey used an image from the Holocaust in reference to the event, which she said was a “grossly inappropriate parallel.” She later agreed with Tompkins that Godfrey used the image to refer to inaction in cases of wrongdoing.
Reis also testified to the plaintiff’s claim that Gollert intended to “set the record straight” at the assembly, denying the existence of racial slurs and a drug deal.
The remainder of the trial will address the plaintiffs’ claims that they were defamed as a result of emails outlining the incident and disciplinary action taken by the school against Elgammal and Velshi sent to students, parents and alumni. They also cited a letter to Toronto Life written by then board member Sarkissian, which implied their behaviour was criminal.
The court also heard testimony from Velshi’s father, Ismet Velshi, who said he felt there wasn’t a “proper investigation” and in “this particular situation” he would characterize the actions of the school as “racist.”
Once Wilson has presented his clients’ case, the defendants will get an opportunity to present evidence refuting the allegations of defamation and racial profiling.