UPDATED: Plehanov acquitted of sexual assaults in Coquitlam schools
Former Coquitlam substitute teacher Aleksandr Plehanov has been acquitted on charges he sexually assaulted a handful of students in schools throughout the district.
Judge David St. Pierre said the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Plehanov intended to touch the girls, who were seven and eight years old at the time, in a sexual manner.
"It was clear from the evidence that Mr. Plehanov either was completely ignorant of or ignored the parameters and boundaries that were expected of a teacher by the school board and/or the teaching college relating to appropriate contact between a teacher and students," St. Pierre said in B.C. Provincial Court in Port Coquitlam Monday morning.
He went on to describe Plehanov as a "clearly ineffectual teacher" in a substitute role and said "certain contact is expected" in a classroom. While it may not raise any eyebrows to have a kindergarten teacher put a student on his or her lap, St. Pierre said, those boundaries become less clear as students get older.
Behaviour that may breach the teaching profession's code of conduct isn't necessarily criminal, he added.
Plehanov, a Burnaby resident, is alleged to have touched students inappropriately soon after he started teaching in School District 43 in 2007. The touching reportedly included girls sitting on Plehanov's lap and him touching their shoulders, bottoms, stomachs and lower pelvic area, and is alleged to have continued until the parents of one girl reported the incident to police in March 2010.
Plehanov was arrested about a week later and charged with 10 counts of sexual interference of a person under 16 and sexual assault involving five complainants.
He was also charged with criminal harassment in connection with an alleged incident in June 2010, when he was said to have been spotted in his car outside the home of one of the complainants. St. Pierre said although he accepted it was Plehanov in the car, there was no compelling evidence Plehanov knew one of the complainants lived there.
During the 13-day trial, which started in January and wrapped up in July, the Crown argued the incidents allegedly occurred after Plehanov was warned several times that some of his contact with the children was inappropriate, and that the court could therefore conclude the contact was for a sexual purpose and not a matter of an unskilled teacher not understanding the boundaries.
Judge St. Pierre concluded the evidence presented in the trial was unreliable.
"I have no doubt that all of the children attempted to provide their evidence in as honest a fashion as they could under the circumstances," he said. And while he accepted that two of the girls sat on Plehanov's lap, it was impossible to say whether any further contact took place and, if it did, whether it was incidental or could be proven as criminal.
Evidence from the alleged incidents at Glen elementary was particularly unreliable, the judge said, because the girls talked about what happened while sitting on the sofa in the classroom.
On the sexual assault charges, St. Pierre said, the Crown failed to prove the touching was sexual in nature and that the sexual integrity of the victim had been violated.
Outside the court, defence lawyer Lisa Jean Helps said the administration of justice was upheld and that her client was happy with the results.
"He is of course ecstatic, he has maintained his innocence from the beginning," Helps said. She could not say what steps, if any, Plehanov would take regarding the future of his teaching career.
The mothers of three of the girls said the verdict was a great disappointment but not surprising, given the complexity of the case.
"However... this was not a waste of time," said one mother. "It really does drive home that it takes a lot of courage to do the right thing. All these children did the right thing: They went home, they told their parents, they talked about it."
They said they would be explaining the verdict "carefully" to their daughters while praising their strength and courage to do the right thing.
"They told the truth and they were honest," one mother said.
She also expressed hope that districts throughout the province will use the case to develop better processes to handle similar incidents in the future and that School District 43, in particular, had learned some lessons.
Crown counsel Wendy van Tongeren Harvey couldn't say whether she would be appealing the case.
The BC Teacher Regulation Branch, formerly the BC College of Teachers, suspended Plehanov's teaching certificate in May 2010 and he remains ineligible to teach.
The branch would hold a public hearing to determine whether his certificate could be re-instated.