Media roundup: attempted arson at St. Joseph’s College School

The basement of St. Joseph’s College School in 2003.

St. Joseph’s College School — an all-girls Catholic School in Toronto — was the focus of national headlines after the head janitor was charged with several offenses, including attempted murder and attempted arson with disregard for human life.

(Full disclosure: I used to go to SJCS — located at 74 Wellesley St. W., near Bay Street — so I’ve read every news story available on the accusations with great concern. I also write for CBCNews.ca, but I am not handling this story.)

Several current and former students and staff are trying to process the fact that a trusted janitor, who served the school for 15 years, could face serious jail time if convicted.

I should state in no uncertain terms that the presumption of innocence is paramount, but I also think it’s important to review the allegations.

Here’s what I’ve learned from several media reports: 

Vincent Perna (known to students as Mr. Perna and to staff as Vince) faces the following charges:

  • Attempted murder
  • Breaking and entering with intent
  • Mischief endangering life
  • Attempted arson with disregard for human life
  • Common nuisance

It is alleged that at roughly 7 a.m. on Thursday, Perna:

  • Broke into one of the school’s mechanical rooms in the basement
  • Cut the main gas line with the intention of causing an explosion
  • Responded to a complaint from kitchen staff, who said they couldn’t light their stoves
  • Was attempting to help light the stove when staff smelled gas and rang the fire alarm at around 7:50 a.m.

The school was evacuated prior to the official start of the school day.  Students and staff already in the building were asked to wait at nearby Queen’s Park, while students arriving to school were sent to join them.

No one was injured and the school was not damaged. The students were unaware of accusations against their long-time custodian until the details were released to the media on Friday — the same day Perna appeared in court at Old City Court.

Here are some other things that were said about Perna:

  • Vincent Perna, as pictured in SJCS’s 2003 yearbook

    Has no previous record of any abnormal behaviour and has worked for SJCS for 15 years (Jon Yan, TCDSB spokesman)

  • Worked for the Catholic board for 30 years and was nearing retirement (School trustee Jo-Ann Davis)
  • Was described by the TCDSB as a “model employee” with which they had never had a dispute.
  • Has been suspended pending the outcome of the legal process.

And these are some key facts about SJCS:

  • It’s Catholic all-girls school that is part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board
  • It is not a private school or a boarding school, as some media have reported
  • The school population is about 800 people, roughly 750 of which are students.
  • It’s a very old school with a reputation for academic excellence, established by the sisters of St. Joseph in 1854 as St. Joseph’s Academy for Young Ladies

Quotations 

Const. Tony Vella, Toronto police spokesperson

  • “The intention was obviously to cause the flame to go in the air for some sort of explosion,” he said. “[Police] noticed the gas line was cut and looked into it further and it’s alleged he did it.” (Toronto Sun)
  • “It was to cause danger to the students and to the staff members … But that never happened. The situation could have been much worse.” (Toronto Sun)
  • “The odor of the school made some of the staff as well as some of the students ill. One of the staffer’s, excellent work, pulled the fire alarm, activated it. As a result emergency personnel go to the school.” (CBC News)
  • “It’s a rarity. Fortunately, it doesn’t occur all the time, but obviously it has occurred one time. So, it’s obviously concerning to us.” (National Post)
  • “He was attempting to kill people.” (CNN)
  • “The intention was obviously to cause the flame to go in the air for some sort of explosion.” (NewsCore)

John Yan, Toronto Catholic District School Board spokesperson

  • “Students and staff were never in danger at any point … Once gas was smelled in the air, police and [Enbridge] came very quickly and the gas was shut off.” (Toronto Sun)
  • “Students were evacuated as a precautionary measure and emergency services, including Enbridge and the fire department, arrived on scene and shut off the gas.” (Toronto Star)
  • “By all accounts, he was a model employee … He has no previous record of problems with the school.” (National Post)

School trustee Jo-Ann Davis and SJCS alumna

  • “It’s obviously shocking … We’re very close quarters to a condominium high rise that’s next door as well as St. Michael’s Residence next door and the university behind. It’s a high density area of the city. Thank God, it was discovered. My prayers are with everyone involved, including Mr. Perna. I can’t imagine what could have happened to make this occur.” (Toronto Sun)
  • “Obviously the assumption was there was a faulty gas line, not that it was perpetrated and done on purpose.” (Toronto Star)

Yasmeen Mounir, student

  • “We were thrilled we were getting out of first period but no one really knew what was going on so we didn’t have much of a reason to get super stressed.” “We didn’t even hear anything until we saw it on the news.” (CBC News)
  • “He was very demure, he didn’t really talk that much.” “It’s not like he made conversation with the students, he just sort of did his job.” (CBC News)
  • “I’m not quite sure whether I believe that he did it or not. Just because he doesn’t seem like the type of person to do it.” (CBC News)

Sabrinna Kulnys-Douglas, grade 11 student

  • “I don’t know janitors by name … I have no clue what would have caused him to do that. It wasn’t so scary at the time when it happened, but knowing my school could have exploded, it’s scarier.” “It smelled so bad…like rotten eggs.” (Toronto Sun)

Natasha and Anna Tyzler, grade 12 student and parent

  • “We never entered into the school … It was all over Twitter that there was a gas leak at the school and there were teachers outside sending us to Queen’s Park.” “Everyone’s shocked … [Perna] supported us on our journey,” said Natasha Tyzler, a basketball team player who added that Perna attended all the games and made the players lunch when the team made city-wide finals in 2011. (Toronto Star)
  • “[Perna] was very pleasant and nice. He volunteered his time on the weekends … The nicest person I could speak to and hence the reason I was in complete shock.” – Anna Tyzler (Toronto Star)

Other interesting points

  • The owner of General Gas Service in Toronto told the Sun that the intensity of the explosion depends on how long the room was filling up with the substance and the size of the room. But any open flame could have set off the blast, including flicking on light switches.
  • Yan told the Post the school runs a daily breakfast program for that girls that begins just before 8 a.m., and that the kitchen staff may have asked Perna for his help lighting the unresponsive stove.
  • The Post reported that school officials sent a letter to students stressing that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and to offer counselling to those rattled by the incident.
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There’s still some bite in journalism

By theilr on Flickr

“Journalists are society’s watchdogs.” The phrase seems so clichéd … and yet powerful investigative journalism is so important (and maybe even on the up and up!).

Given that it’s so expensive, time-consuming, and — frankly — quite risky, I am always happy to see in-depth and critical reporting.

In case you haven’t heard, the Star is currently publishing a series that is taking a closer look at  a rather sacred cow: the Special Investigations Unit. The SIU is a law enforcement agency, independent of the police, that investigates instances of serious injury, sexual assault, and/or death that involve police and civilians.

Michele Henry and David Bruser have highlighted some troubling cases (see list below) in which allegations against police have not been satisfactorily investigated. Predictably, this critical series has raised the ire of the Toronto Police Association and that of many readers.

But, aren’t we supposed to be holding power to account and asking these uncomfortable questions? Isn’t the opposing idiom (journalists as lapdogs) much more disconcerting?

I think so, despite my many pleasant encounters with both police officers and representatives from the SIU. Kathy English, the Star’s Public Editor, also thinks so.

English makes a compelling argument for exploring this inflammatory issue.
Her reflection is an absolute must-read for those interested in public service journalism, and all the turbulence it entails.

The Star’s watchdog mandate

By Kathy English, Public Editor

Excerpt:

…Is the Toronto Star “anti-police”? Is this hard-hitting investigative series “a cop-bashing vendetta” and “junk journalism” as the Toronto Police Association charged in a press release responding to the Star’s investigation?

As I told readers this week, the Star has long been “pro-justice,” not “anti-police.” In reporting such strong evidence of a lack of results and little accountability from the SIU, the Star’s series exposes and holds to further account some officers who were investigated by the SIU. It is not an indictment of all police…

As one of the most powerful institutions in our midst, police should face scrutiny by the media acting as surrogates for citizens. Probing the SIU, which was created in 1990 after a series of police shootings of black civilians, is well in line with the media’s watchdog mandate.

“A review after 20 years of an organization like the SIU is completely appropriate and exactly the sort of thing newspapers need to do, should do and in the case of the Star, do all the time,” Kevin Donovan the Star’s Investigations editor said. “Sadly, many police have taken the position that we do not have the right to review their actions or the actions of the SIU.

Continue reading…

More from the series:


Canadian-Iranian blogger facing execution

Hossein Derakhshan, file photo from the Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t heard of Hossein Derakhshan, the first thing I should tell you is that we need to save his life.

Derakhshan, also known as “Hoder” and the “blogfather” is a Toronto-based blogger known for facilitating Persian anti-government dissent in the blogosphere and later changing his political slant and alienating some of his readers.

He has an intricate backstory,  one that is well summarized by an alumna of my J-school program, Kate Allen. You can read her synopsis (with embedded video at the end here).

Yes, he’s a controversial figure, but regardless of what he’s written, it is absolutely unacceptable that he is facing execution.

Carmen Chai, who I met in the Toronto Star radio room this summer, has listed several ways in which Canadians can help.

Read up, and please speak out.

Remember that time I was on CBC radio?

Every news junkie needs an oversized coffee mug

Not that I like how I sound on the radio or anything (real talk: I don’t) but I do need to highlight my first interview on the Ceeb anyway…especially because  I have an overt appreciation for our national broadcaster and because CBC journalist Valérie Morand found me right here in the blogosphere.

Inspired by a recent Washington Post article, I’d previously weighed in and reached out on Ottawa’s evolution here at the Fab Files as well as in the Toronto Star’s intern blog.

Earlier this month, Morand interviewed me about the feedback I’d gathered and allowed me to drop in my own two cents. If you’re interested in the end result, here’s The Link (pun unapologetically intended, as this is the name of the show in which this interview was broadcast.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

“On The Link today..
…A recent article in the Washington Post raving about Canada’s capital, Ottawa, being the unselfconscious cool capital with an easy cosmopolitan nature, has stirred quite a bit of reaction in Canada. The Link’s Valérie Morand brings us the reactions from people living in Ottawa.”

A big THANK YOU to everyone who originally weighed in on both blogs, Facebook and Twitter!

G20 reports of media repression keep pouring in


Photo by Anderson Mancini

The Canadian Journalism Foundation
From the J-Source newsletter:

THE BIG ISSUE
G20 reports of media repression keep pouring in

After the G20 folded its tent, first-hand accounts of media repression have continued being posted on J-Source.  In ‘Access Denied,’ reporter Jesse Freeston describes being beaten by police. In the Student’s Lounge, there’s an account of a student journalist having to hand over his notes and camera, and in J-News, a story of cameras being returned with images gone. As calls for public scrutiny mount, this backgrounder on covering public inquiries is a helpful read. If you were there, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression is conducting a survey of journalists’ experiences. And if you got roughed-up, take heart that although the rest of the worldwasn’t very interested, at least Canadians tuned in. As calls for public scrutiny mount, this backgrounder on covering public
inquiries is a helpful read. So is the Riot Survival Guide.

From the breaking news desk: July 17 – 19

Photo by έŁέ¢τяøиί¢ έγέ on Flickr

Keeping cool in the world’s hottest spots

Think it’s sweaty in Toronto? Try taking a vacation to El Azizia, Libya. The small desert town has the distinction of dealing with the highest temperature ever on record.

A portion of Lawrence Ave. E. is closed as police from traffic services investigate.

Firefighter injured after lightning sparks fire on roof in Markham

A firefighter fell from a ladder and was injured while responding to the blaze

Two injured in separate overnight stabbings

Three suspects have been arrested in connection with a downtown stabbing; a second stabbing occurred in Scarborough.

1 dies in Hwy. 410 crash in Brampton

Two killed in highway collisions so far this weekend.

Pedestrians hospitalized after being hit by taxi

The victims, a man in his 50s and a woman in her 20s, are suffering serious injuries after being hit by a cab.

From the breaking news desk: July 9 – 12

Photo by dfinnecy on Flickr

It was a very grim series of shifts this time around. Many tragedies and close calls.
Here’s the latest list of breaking news stories that I authored.

Child choked by window blind cord
A 5-year-old Pickering boy is in critical but stable condition after getting tangled up in a cord attached to window blinds.

Dangerous sex offender may be hiding in Toronto
The 71-year-old fugitive is considered violent and at high risk to reoffend, according to police.

Toddler in hospital after being pulled from pond
The baby was pulled from a pond north of Ajax at around 10 a.m. Sunday.

School bus set ablaze in North York
The school bus was gutted by the flames, but nearby Zion Heights Junior High spared.

Human remains identified as Bracebridge woman
The remains of a 32-year-old woman were discovered at a cottage in Bracebridge on July 5.

2 Toronto men die in separate drownings
Police say a 31-year-old drowned in the Wasaga Beach area and an 84-year-old died in Gravenhurst.

Severe thunderstorm warning lifted for Toronto
Severe weather warning lifted for numerous regions in Southern Ontario, but warnings imposed again for London, Middlesex, Oxford and Brant.

Man drowns at Wasaga Beach
Natural bodies of water pose a greater risk to swimmers at all levels, according to the Lifesaving Society.

Police bust marijuana operation southeast of Peterborough
Officers from a tactics and rescue team found two men asleep and holding weapons as they entered the home.

Spot blackouts dim three Toronto neighbourhoods
A spokesperson for Toronto Hydro said more people than usual complained over the spot blackouts Friday.

Police believe that the woman is responsible for previous incidents of sewing needles being inserted into various brands of sausages.
Police release video of suspect wanted in car wash slaying
Images of a baseball-cap wearing suspect were captured by several cameras around the crime scene.
Marchers to protest G20 police actions; traffic delays expected
Activists plan to march along main streets from their meeting place at Queen’s Park to Simcoe Park at 2 p.m.
Markham man pleads guilty in collision that killed teen
The convicted 23-year-old faces two years in jail after rear-ending the 16-year-old driver of a minibike in 2009.