Friends describe teacher as ‘exemplary’

Deb Ashton’s life since her arrest in June 2008 for an alleged sexual relationship with a former student has been, in the words of her lawyer, a nightmare.

Deb Ashton’s life since her arrest in June 2008 for an alleged sexual relationship with a former student has been, in the words of her lawyer, a nightmare.

And the eight-woman, four-man jury will hear about the nightmare from the former teacher and vice-principal sometime this week.

Ashton, 45, is charged with sexual assault, sexual interference of a person under 14 and invitation to sexual touching under 14 in regards to an alleged relationship with a former student at a Vernon elementary school between September 2002 and January 2004. She has pleaded not guilty to all three counts.

Her lawyer, G. Jack Harris of Abbotsford, announced during his opening statements in Vernon Supreme Court Tuesday that Ashton will take the stand.

“Since that night in June of 2008 when she was arrested by police at her home and taken by police in her pyjamas, it’s been a nightmare ever since,” said Harris. “There has been no teaching for her. Her children can’t have friends come over to the house because of the bail conditions. Her mood over the past 930 days has gone from outright anger to crying.”

Harris said his client was outraged by the lack of investigation into the charges by police, and at how stories by the accuser and his friends kept changing.

“A proper investigation would reveal who Deb Ashton is,” said Harris. “Police never spoke to her co-teacher. Never spoke to her principal. Never spoke to any other children in the years since the alleged incidents. All police cared about was the victim and his friends.”

Harris told the jury that Ashton must be presumed innocent as that is the cornerstone of the Canadian justice system; that the Crown has the onus to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ashton was guilty.

When Ashton takes the stand, Harris said his client will tell how she spent a lot of time with a number of families during that first year of the alleged relationship, and that, yes, she had spent a lot of time with the accuser and his family.

She will tell the jury, said Harris, that the trip she took to Vancouver was not with the accuser and his friends for a basketball tournament, as he testified, but that she took his sister and her friends to a cultural event.

“She will also tell you that never once did she say anything to the victim or his friends of a sexual nature,” said Harris, who began his defence by calling a number of character witnesses, including Vernon Secondary School teacher and basketball coach Mike Bertram, who coached one of Ashton’s kids during basketball.

He was asked about a trip to provincials in Maple Ridge, where parents of the kids were in a hotel room drinking alcohol, while the students were in another room. The only person who complained, said Bertram, was Ashton.

“She was not happy with the fact parents were drinking, she didn’t think parents should be drinking when their kids were around,” said Bertram. “It took me about 15 to 20 minutes to explain that this happens in other sports on trips but she wasn’t happy with that.”

Longtime friends and parents involved with Ashton through a parent advisory council at the school Ashton was working at when she was arrested were all asked on the stand about Ashton’s reputation in the community for honesty, integrity and telling the truth.

Among the answers given were “exemplary,” “outstanding,” and “excellent.”

Harris questioned three former students who played basketball and volleyball for Ashton. All three are now high school students, and all three confirmed that Ashton would drive them to games and sometimes home from games if their parents weren’t available; that she would sometimes buy them food after games; and, that, yes, they sometimes went to movies as a group.

One current high school student, a friend of Ashton’s daughter, said Ashton has never lied or misled anybody in their circle of friends.

“All of our friends respect her and trust her,” said the student, 17.

The trial continues in Vernon Supreme Court.