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Retired Langley teacher pleads guilty to sexual assault

In front of her victim and his family, retired Langley teacher Deborah Ralph stood up in Supreme Court in New Westminster and pleaded guilty on Friday to sexual assault involving a former student.

Ralph sexually assaulted her former student between December, 1998 and June, 2001 while the boy was between the ages of 11 to 13.

The victim contacted Langley RCMP on Nov. 8, 2011 to report the abuse. Ralph taught him in Grade 5 at James Kennedy Elementary School. However, the sexual interference didn’t occur until after she was no longer his teacher. The court learned that Ralph continued to contact her victim after he graduated from her class, asking him to come clean her family pool.

She spent a summer picking him up and dropping him off, taking him on outings, shopping for him and later having him for sleepovers, taking him on a summer vacation and bringing him along on school field trips even when he was no longer a Langley student.

Crown counsel David Simpkin is asking for a sentence of three years in jail for the “egregious breach of trust, given she is his teacher, she became a family friend, he was only 11-years-old and to the grooming elements to this offense and the impact on the victim.”

The defense is asking for an 18- to 24-month sentence to be served in the community.

Through Crown submissions and the forensic psychologist’s report, the court learned that Ralph led a “very ordinary life.”

Her parents divorced when she was young. But she has no mental health issues, no addictions, is married — and has been for many years. She also has two children who were already grown at the time of the child sexual abuse.

She was around 41-years-old when she met her victim as one of her students. She is now 59. She retired from teaching recently and was on paid leave after she was charged.

Ralph told the court-ordered psychologist she was feeling unfulfilled in her life and in her marriage. She had a previous affair with a professor but he had moved away. So she threw herself into her work. She became a teacher later in life, after raising her children.

Ralph said she identified with the victim and considered him gifted.

The victim will not be named to protect his identity and there is a publication ban on his identity. The court learned that she even went over to the victim’s house to congratulate him on graduating from Grade 5 and to wish him well in his move to North Vancouver.

The court learned that the victim’s parents had recently separated because of the dad’s gambling addiction and the mother’s income was what supported the family.

It was then that Ralph started her “grooming,” said Crown, asking if he would like to make some money cleaning the family pool.

Forensic psychologist Dr. Smith said Ralph equated her feelings for her victim as “young love.” She connected with the boy better than she could connect with her husband and admitted she felt “exhilarated” when she was with her victim. She admits that she didn’t consider what she did would damage the victim and believed it was mutual.

“She doesn’t recognize the abusive nature of their relationship,” said Simpkin. “She appears to be bored, looking for some spice in her life and chose “the victim.”

She doesn’t appear to have any insight into the harm she has caused.”

The sexual abuse included kissing, touching and oral sex performed on the victim. Ralph admitted to being devastated when the victim severed ties and refused to take her calls anymore.

The harm done was outlined in the emotional victim impact statements made by the victim and his family.

“For the past 15 years I’ve had to carry the shame and guilt of this,” said the victim in court on Friday. “I have been left with feeling responsible, for feeling like an outcast. I have lost a huge part of my childhood. Debbie preyed on me because she knew my family life was unstable.

“After the abuse I became my own tormentor, doing drugs and alcohol at 12-years-old because it was my only form of coping.

“I was drowning in guilt. I was angry at the school system for letting this happen to me, I had anxiety of anyone finding out.”

The victim said he often had thoughts of suicide and tried once to overdose. He said he sabotaged his school efforts because he didn’t want to validate what Ralph had said about him being “different and gifted.”

The court learned that it wasn’t until 2005, after a break-up with a girlfriend and in a drunken and depressed state, that he confessed the sexual abuse to his mother. She right away took him for counseling and there was an attempt to make a statement to police, but he wasn’t ready.

It was later when the victim hit rock bottom and checked himself into rehab that he found the strength to make a statement with police, he said.

“This is not my shame. This is Debbie’s,” he said in his statement.

But he said he will forever be damaged by what she did, he struggles with depression and had to take leave from work.

His mother also read out her impact statement.

“Finally, Debbie has taken ownership of her actions. My son was 11 — she betrayed our trust in the worst possible way. She befriended me. She sat and had tea with me all the while sexually assaulting my child. I carry around the guilt that I didn’t protect my son. Despite therapy, this will forever affect our lives.”

The victim’s brothers spoke about how hard it was to see his brother succumb to addiction, not knowing that he was carrying the burden of sexual abuse. The crime has been very difficult for the family and has hurt their level of trust in the world.

All the family members said they feel guilt for not protecting their brother and for not seeing what was happening.

All have sought counseling and hope to “heal.”

The judge will have to decide when to apply the Criminal Code to the offenses, because at the time of the sexual crimes, a conditional sentence was an appropriate sentence, defense reminded Supreme Court Judge Selwyn Romilly.

There have been considerable changes to the Criminal Code and how crimes against children are treated, said Simpkin. Since 2005, a minimum jail sentence must occur.

Defense lawyers for Ralph said her guilty plea must be taken into account, saving her victim a trial. She has no criminal history, and there is no evidence of any other victims.

Chronic pain suffered from a bad car crash must also be weighed in sentencing, said her defense.

“She has many fellow teachers who have written to say what an exemplary teacher she was . . . she had a significant fall from grace.” She has remorse for actions now, said defense.

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