A 15-year-old Muslim student mutters his frustration over a poor test result. A school monitor thinks she hears a threat to blow up the school.
A chain of events follows that, according to lawsuit filed in Quebec Court, sees the student taken from his home in handcuffs, arrested, kicked out of his private school and his hopes of a university scholarship put on hold.
The student was acquitted several months later when the Crown failed to produce evidence against him.
Now the student, who cannot be named because he was a minor at the time of his arrest, and his mother are suing Collège Charlemagne, a West Island private school, for $75,000.
The lawsuit alleges the school discriminated against the student based on his faith and his race (he is part Haitian, part Moroccan).
None of the claims contained in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
Collège Charlemagne refused to comment on the incident when contacted by CBC News on Monday.
All in a word
At the heart of the lawsuit is a subtle difference in language, one word that carries radically different meanings depending on context.
The student was in one of the school’s open spaces on Oct. 13, 2015. He had just failed a chemistry exam and, the lawsuit alleges, jokingly told his friends, “I want to jump from the agora” — “Je vais sauter de l’agora.”
In a witness statement, a school monitor told Montreal police that she heard the student say “I want to blow up the school,” or in French: “Je vais faire sauter l’école.”
“I asked him, ‘Are you serious?'” the monitor said in her statement, which is included in the civil suit filings. “He responded ‘Yes.'”
The monitor reported what she thought she heard to the school’s principal, Julie Beaudet. Another school monitor told the principal he heard the student shout “al-Qaeda” later that day, according to a police report, also included in the civil suit.
Beaudet relayed the information to police the following day. Officers visited the school and took a series of statements from staff.
That night, around 9:30 on Oct. 14, there was a knock on the door of the student’s home. He was in his bedroom. His mother answered, and went into a state of shock when she saw a dozen police officers outside, she told CBC News.
“I wasn’t expecting anything. [My son] wasn’t expecting anything,” she said.
The officers went to her son’s bedroom and upon seeing his multiple award for athletics, said “we don’t want you to run” and placed him in handcuffs, according to his mother.
“I dressed quickly and rushed after him.”
After being held in a cell for several hours, the student was released on a promise to appear in court to face charges of uttering threats. The school expelled the student shortly after.
A talented track and field athlete, the student had been hoping to secure a scholarship to a U.S. university. But he stopped hearing from interested schools after his arrest, the civil suit says.
The student’s mother is puzzled why Collège Charlemagne never reached out to her, or her son, before going to police.
“I didn’t even deserve a phone call to find out what happened before the principal called the police,” the single mother said. She added that her son had been a student at the school for more than a decade.
Facing charges that could carry a punishment of up to five years in prison, the family hired defence lawyer Emilie Gagnon.
As Gagnon looked into the student’s case, she found police hadn’t bothered to cross-check any of the witness statements they had gathered, Gagnon told CBC News in an email.
The student was acquitted of the criminal charges last January.
Gagnon gathered five signed statements from the friends who were with the student in the cafeteria on Oct. 13.
They are included in the civil suit. All contradict the school monitor’s account of what the student said.
But they also go further. The statements from the friends include claims that the monitor in question had repeatedly said things they found racially insensitive.
“This person, in effect, seems to hold many prejudices against black people,” the lawsuit reads.
The student is now in CEGEP and hasn’t yet given up his hopes of earning an athletic scholarship to a U.S. university, his mother said.
“But he still has moments when he thinks about what happened,” she added. “When there is a knock at the door at home, he jumps because he remembers the night he was arrested.”
There is no question, in her mind, that both her son’s race and religion played a role in the school’s reaction.
“He is of Muslim origin; I’m a Muslim. He is black; his father is Haitian,” she said. “Unfortunately for him that’s three strikes. He’s Arab, he’s black and he’s Muslim.”
The family’s lawyer, Jean Lozeau, said the lawsuit is still in its preliminary stages. A hearing with a judge is scheduled for next month.