Prince George Citizen Online, March 12, 1998

Former students criticize military-style school after two deaths

WELLANDPORT, Ont. (CP) While the families of two teenagers hit by a train mourn their deaths, former students of Robert Land Academy say the school was so tough they can understand why the two youths ran away.

Matt Toppi, 17, of Manitouwadge, Ont., and his 16-year-old friend were lying on railway tracks Saturday night in Burlington when they were hit.

One former student described the academy as a "living nightmare," saying he personally benefited but saw many others unable to cope with the school's gruelling military-like regime.

Another said he found the school's treatment degrading, including being whacked occasionally with a walking stick and forced into initiation rites such as having pubic hair shaved.

"It made me worse," said John Godfrey, 27. "I came out of there and I didn't want to go to school."

Al Coulen, an official with the academy which charges $20,630 annual tuition, denied that students are physically or verbally abused.

He also said he had no knowledge of students having their pubic hair shaved during initiation rites.

Coulen said the school has no plans to conduct a review.

"That's for the police," he said. "They (the students) left the academy and it happened after they had left the academy."

The identity of the other boy, a 16-year-old from Stouffville, Ont., hasn't been released.

There is confusion as to the manner in which the boys died.

Original reports from police indicated that the deaths were part of a suicide pact. But one of the victims' family said his family was told Monday by police that Toppi was trying to save the second boy when the pair were hit by the train.

"From what we've been told, the engineer saw (the teen) trying to pull the student off the tracks," said Toppi's uncle Ralph Peters, of Timmins.

The teens were reported missing from school early Friday morning. Toppi's mother said the boys had told friends they were headed to British Columbia. They had packed a backpack and hoped to hitch a ride on a westbound train, Christine Toppi said.

"They lay down on the tracks where it was dry, I guess thinking they would hear the train when it came," she said. "My son woke up and tried to pull his friend off the track and he was hit . . . I guess Matt just couldn't drag him out of there."

But Halton police told the Toronto Star on Monday that they had nothing to indicate the deaths were anything but suicides. Det. Steve Skerrett of Halton Region police said there was no evidence of alcohol or drug use at the scene. Toxicology results from a post-mortem Sunday are expected to take two months.

Peters said he didn't know why his nephew ran away from the school.

"He was doing extremely well down there," Peters said, adding there was no hint of trouble from the teen when he had returned home at Christmas.

"Everything seemed fine." Toppi's funeral will be Thursday in Timmins.

(Toronto Star, Timmins Daily Press, Hamilton Spectator)

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