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BCTF likely helping to pay accused teacher's legal bills

The union that represents B.C. teachers is likely paying at least a portion of the legal bills of the Langley teacher charged with molesting an under-age male elementary school student.

As a member of the B.C. Teachers Federation, 57-year-old Deborah Ralph has the right to apply for union-funded legal assistance in defending herself against criminal charges.

When contacted by The Times, a BCTF spokesperson declined to confirm if Ralph was receiving assistance, citing privacy concerns.

The union also refused to comment on the case for the same reason.

However, the union official noted that any accused person is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and did confirm that members can ask the BCTF to fund their legal defence when the charges are considered job-related.

Such requests are considered on a case-by-case basis, and there is a limit set on the amount the BCTF will pay.

Since the in-house lawyers employed by the union specialize in labour law, outside criminal lawyers are hired when defence funding is approved for a BCTF member.

Ralph is charged with one count of sexual assault and one of sexual interference of a person under the age of 14, a student at James Kennedy Elementary in Walnut Grove, where she taught from September 1987 to June 2010.

The teacher is being defended by Janet Winteringham, a high-profile Vancouver lawyer who was on the prosecution team which obtained guilty pleas from two BC Liberal government aides charged with corruption in connection with the $1-billion sale of B.C. Rail.

Ralph was suspended with pay after she was charged in November, one day after the former student went to police. No date for her trial has been set yet.

Her next scheduled court appearance was on Jan. 20, a routine arraignment hearing that Ralph was not required to attend in person.

Langley teachers who are acquitted of sex-related charges are covered by a section of the union agreement with the school district that refers to “falsely accused” employees.

It provides counseling for the teacher and their family, a leave of absence with pay until a return to work can be negotiated and “providing, upon request of the employee, available factual information to the parents and students involved with the false accusation.”

The Langley school district announced it would review the way it handles sex abuse allegations after a Langley Fine Arts teacher was acquitted in 1998 on charges of improperly touching four female students in a school darkroom.

In finding Garth Jeffries Douglas not guilty on all counts, Judge Norm Collingwood declared the touching “nothing more than accidental or innocent contact” and called the way school district managers handled the matter “disgraceful.”

Collingwood condemned district administrators for playing detective for over a month by doing their own interviews of alleged victims, rather than calling in the police right away.

The judge said the “plethora” of interviews and statements were taken by school administrators with no training in the “delicate” task of interviewing complainants in sex-related cases.

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