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High times at Appleby College: inside a bitter legal dispute over discipline at the posh private school

When the prestigious private school expelled a 12th grader named Gautam Setia for lighting a bong in his dorm on the night before finals, his parents launched a lawsuit. They believe he was cheated out of his diploma—and his future

Hight times at Appleby College

Gautam Setia’s parents, Nicky and Devinder, believe Appleby is responsible for their son’s depression (Image: Joanne Ratajczak)

Devinder Setia is a tall, soft-spoken man who wears a black Sikh turban and silver-rimmed glasses. He arrived in Canada from Nagaland, India, 28 years ago and founded Re-Flex 2000, a small screen-printing company in the Halton Hills village of Hornby. One day, he was visited by a sprightly young Indian woman with thick, black hair who wanted to place an order. Within 20 minutes, Devinder proposed. The woman, whose name was Nicky, told him he was nuts, but they began a relationship. They bonded over their shared heritage and Devinder’s skillful Indian cooking. The couple was married a year later and, when Nicky was 31, had Gautam, their only child.

The Setias chose not to enforce a strict Sikh upbringing on their son. He’s allowed to cut and style his hair, instead of growing it out as Sikh custom dictates. They speak English at home, and Gautam was encouraged to make friends with Canadian kids from many backgrounds. Nicky expected her son to attend a top school. She wanted him to be taught in small classes, and she wanted a school where the parents were a part of the community. “Like one big family,” she says. Based on what she knew of its reputation, she set her sights on Appleby College in Oakville. She and Devinder started putting money away. At age six, Gautam attended MacLachlan College, a private Oakville school that’s known as a feeder for Appleby.

Expectations were high. “My mom’s goal was Harvard,” Gautam says. “She wanted me to be a doctor. Anything that starts with a P and ends with a D.”

In the two years prior to his Grade 7 acceptance at Appleby, the Setias sent him to the school’s summer camp. They bought a house around the corner from Appleby and attended the school’s annual open house together. Everything was going according to plan.

Life at Appleby suited Gautam. He worked hard and made close friends among his classmates. He participated in Model UN and played basketball, squash and rugby. He was easygoing and kind, with a mop of curly black hair and dark eyes he lightened with coloured contact lenses, just for fun. Though the Setias weren’t as wealthy as many Appleby families, Gautam never felt like he didn’t belong. Because he lived so close to school, he often went home for lunch, bringing friends with him.

All Appleby students are required to board in the school’s residences in their last year, in preparation for university life. Setia lived in Powell’s House, one of the boys’ residences, named after a teacher who died in World War I. He decorated his room with posters of flashy cars and enjoyed his first taste of freedom from his parents.

On June 14, 2010, the night before his last exam, he was in his room, studying. At 9:15, he took a break and, with Marc Bessey, a star Appleby hockey player, left the campus to meet another Appleby student who lived five minutes away. Driving around in the friend’s car, they each took a hit from Bessey’s bong. It wasn’t something Setia did often. But that night, with only one more exam to go, there was cause for celebration.

Hight times at Appleby College

(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)

The boys returned to school just after 10 p.m. and headed back to Bessey’s room. An hour later, Eugene Massi, the dorm supervisor and the school’s gym teacher, opened the door. “What’s going on here?” he asked. Massi looked from Setia to Bessey to the bong on the desk.

Busted.

Gautam filled with dread. He knew his parents would be furious.

What happened next would turn the Setias against the school they’d held in such high esteem. Their dispute would become a cautionary tale for all Ontario private schools—what is fair punishment when a student breaks the rules? And who decides: the school or the legal system?

Appleby College sits on the Lake Ontario waterfront and looks like a prep school ad come to life, with students in crested navy blazers, leather knapsacks slung across their backs. The school was founded by Sir Edmund Walker, a banker who would go on to be instrumental in the development of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, and his son-in-law John Guest, a teacher at another prestigious private school, Upper Canada College. Guest had a vision for a boys’ school in the country, away from the city and its distractions. In early 1911, a friend invited Guest out to Oakville to see a plot of rolling farm field with a decrepit barn, and he persuaded Sir Edmund to put up $15,000. Soon after, Guest pitched a tent on the grounds to oversee the construction. That September, Appleby opened for business.

In 1991, the school became co-ed. It’s now divided into four houses, Harry Potter–style, though assignment to Baillie, Walker, Colley and Powell’s Houses is largely based on gender. (There is no Sorting Hat.) The school bills itself as the creator of “leaders of character.” The average class size is 16, students are given laptops, and interactive whiteboards are used in classrooms instead of chalkboards.

To earn Appleby’s prestigious diploma, students need more than the standard 30 credits. Appleby requires its students to complete 100 hours of volunteer service, compared to the provincial standard of 40 for public secondary schools. Students must also complete the bronze award of the Duke of Edinburgh program, an internationally recognized community service medal. They need a world language credit (in Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin or German) in Grade 9, along with French until the end of Grade 10. Last year, 99 per cent of Appleby’s graduates went on to university. (The remaining one per cent chose to take a gap year.)

It’s one of the most expensive private schools in the world, with tuition for the 2013–2014 year starting at $30,980 for Grade 7 and 8 students, $34,440 for Grade 9 and 10 students and $37,970 for Grade 11 students. Grade 12 at Appleby costs $51,460 for tuition and boarding, more expensive than UCC and just shy of the cost of a year of tuition and board at Harvard.

Those fees cover lunch in the cafeteria every day, medical care from the health centre at the school and annual trips to Appleby’s northern campus on private Rabbitnose Island in Temagami. They don’t include a one-time $5,000 enrolment charge, or the cost of textbooks, school uniforms and bus service. For Nicky and Devinder, the tuition was already more than they could afford. The grand total for Gautam’s six years was almost $220,000. In addition, the school was constantly fundraising and parents were expected to step up.

The Setias remember one of Appleby’s fundraising staff paying them a visit, telling them of families donating money for the top-notch new library the school had planned. “This one did half a million, the other one matched a half a million. This one did a million,” Nicky recalls. “They tried to make you feel guilty that way,” adds Devinder. Meanwhile, the Setias wrote a comparatively small cheque—$2,500 for each year he attended.

Appleby is one of the most expensive schools in the world. The grand total for Gautam’s six years was $220,000

Social currency among Appleby’s students is earned by excelling at everything. “Your friends are all getting good marks and you’re a big loser if you don’t,” says one former student. The school days are long. Class starts at 8 a.m. and the day finishes around 5:30, after a mandatory sport or club, like hockey, golf and swim teams or the philanthropy club. However, kids test the rules. At the Christmas carol service, the choir has shown up to chapel naked under their robes. Students surreptitiously shop on Net-A-Porter on their laptops during class. And ­gathering down by Lake Ontario has long been a popular pursuit for the school’s covert smokers and rebels. “The smokers have the best view at the school, down at the water,” says one former student, adding that the lake was a spot where pot-smokers usually gathered, too.

Appleby’s code of conduct, which is signed by new students and their parents, is strict. Among the more serious offences are dealing drugs, selling alcohol, committing extortion and possessing a weapon or explosive substance, all of which can result in expulsion. Smoking or lighting a match, candle, incense stick or lighter inside or within 10 metres of any campus building are also zero tolerance offences. The code stipulates that any student accused of such an infraction will be given the opportunity, with his or her parents, to meet with the head of the school and give the family’s side of the story.

The school’s administration admits that students are occasionally caught with pot on campus. (Dorm supervisors conduct random room checks.) Approximately 10 other students have been expelled from Appleby over the last five years, though the school won’t disclose their offences.

Punishments for mild misbehaviour at Appleby are called gatings, and range from writing lines to refereeing Saturday sports games to yard maintenance. Teachers warn students with urban legends: if you get gated, you’ll cut the grass with scissors; you’ll shovel the driveway with a spoon. Gautam says a teacher once approached him and said, “If you don’t shave, I’m going to pull out the duct tape.”

According to Gautam, during his six years at the school he was reprimanded only twice. Once, in Grade 10, he was approached off-campus, on his way home, by a teacher concerned with his rumpled uniform. He’d been playing a game of pick-up football with friends just before. And the second time, in Grade 12, when he boarded at the school, he and his roommate attended a wedding reception and broke curfew. They were discovered by an Appleby security guard off-campus and made to copy out the school’s code of conduct by hand for two hours as punishment. “It wasn’t like, oh, yeah, I hijacked a car and put it on the roof,” Gautam says. “I didn’t do any of that.”

The morning after being caught with the bong, Gautam woke up in the health centre. He’d been sent there, as per school protocol, for observation. Massi called Nicky that morning to tell her he’d caught her son “bonging.” She didn’t know what the term meant so he clarified—smoking dope. The likely punishment? Expulsion. Nicky and Devinder were stunned. They’d never caught their son smoking pot before. She cried. And then they got in the car and headed for Appleby.

Gautam wrote his final exam, fear of retribution hanging over his head. When he finished, he was summoned to see Theresa Blake, Appleby’s senior school director, and Michael Peirce, the head of school, and asked to explain his version of events. Massi had reported finding clothes stuffed under the dorm room door, a fan running in the window and curls of smoke within the bong. Gautam admitted he’d been getting high.

When Nicky and Devinder arrived at the school, Gautam took them to the school’s office. Peirce said he didn’t have time to speak with them, and would render his formal decision later that afternoon. In the meantime, he asked them to move their son out of his Appleby residence. Upon returning home, Nicky wrote a frantic email, pleading with Peirce to give them the opportunity to speak to him.

The dorm supervisor said he found clothes stuffed under the door, a fan running in the window and the two students sharing a bong

He reminded the Setias that the punishment for smoking a banned substance in residence was expulsion. “I have to remain consistent in order to be fair to those who have made similar mistakes in the past while upholding the school’s expectations for the future,” he wrote. If the Setias withdrew Gautam, he continued, the school would grant him a provincial diploma but not an Appleby diploma. The school was turning what should have been an expulsion into a simple withdrawal. The Setias felt they had no choice: Gautam withdrew. (Appleby wouldn’t comment on Bessey’s punishment, and Bessey didn’t respond to my requests for an interview.)

The mood was grim at the Setia household. It was the first time Gautam had ever seen his father cry. “On the last day of school?” Nicky asked her son, taking in his pale face, dry lips and haggard expression. “That’s stupid!”

He responded: “Everybody’s doing it. I’m not alone.”

That evening, Nicky called the parents of her son’s classmates, informing them that the prom after-party she’d committed to hosting six months before had to be called off. She cancelled the tent, the caterer and the fancy toilets she’d rented to ensure her country home’s septic tank wouldn’t overflow.

The administration photoshopped Setia and Bessey out of the Appleby yearbook graduating class photos, as if to erase them from Appleby history altogether.

Private schools fear that, if the courts are allowed jurisdiction over disciplinary matters, it will open a Pandora’s box of options for litigious parents who feel mistreated

The school’s actions gnawed at the family, especially Nicky. She felt robbed of seeing her only son graduate. Nicky and Devinder hired a lawyer, Ronald Manes, of the Toronto firm Torkin Manes, and decided to sue the school for the official Appleby diploma and legal fees, nothing more. The school, in turn, retained Borden Ladner Gervais, the country’s largest law firm. The Superior Court judges hearing the Setias’ case were David Aston, Sandra Chapnik and Joan Lax.

In his affidavit, Gautam explained why he thought he was being treated unfairly by the school’s administration. He claimed two friends, in different instances, were caught with drug paraphernalia. One was found with an unlit pipe and suspended for five days. The other was busted by Massi, who noticed the smell of weed coming from a dorm room. Massi supposedly announced that he would return in 10 minutes, and he’d better not find any paraphernalia in the room when he did.

The court ruled in favour of the family and agreed that Appleby had no proof Gautam lit anything in the dorm—only that when Massi walked into the room, the bong still contained smoke. The school had also failed to follow its own rules by denying his parents a chance to state their case.

Because Peirce retired after the graduation ceremony in 2010, two years before the case was heard, the court decided it would be unfair to command the school to confer the diploma under a new administration. So, instead of ruling unilaterally and forcing Appleby to reverse its decision, the judges simply asked the school to rethink it.

Appleby refused and struck back: the administration appealed, arguing that the court didn’t have the authority to reinstate a student who’d been expelled by a private school because discipline is a contractual matter between the school and the family. The Ontario Court of Appeal will hear the case on August 20. The point of argument isn’t whether or not the school treated the family fairly. It’s whether the court has jurisdiction over disciplinary matters at Appleby at all.

The decision has implications for every private school in the province, and indeed for any privately incorporated business. A group of schools that could be affected by this case’s outcome—including UCC, Ridley, Havergal and Bishop Strachan—plans to intervene in the appeal. It’s represented by the lawyer Chris Matthews, who is a partner at the Toronto firm Aird and Berlis. Matthews will be allowed 15 minutes to bolster Appleby’s case.

The group’s perspective? Stay out of our business. If the courts have jurisdiction over the disciplinary ­matters of private schools, it will open a Pandora’s box of options for litigious parents who feel mistreated. Instead of accepting a school administration’s decisions about expulsions or gatings or even the grades on a report card, demanding parents could take the school to court to get what they want.

These are often wealthy, influential individuals who have spent a small fortune on their kids’ education—they’ll be highly motivated to get their way. On the flip side, the schools, already busy pleasing the members of their parents’ associations, will be reluctant to hand down serious punishments and risk spurring costly legal battles.

After Gautam’s departure from Appleby, he enrolled as a business administration student at Wilfrid Laurier University. He fell out of touch with many of his Appleby friends, including Bessey, whom he hasn’t spoken with since the incident. At Laurier, with the lawsuit underway, Gautam found it hard to connect with others. When he decided to do a summer semester to boost his grades, Nicky didn’t think anything was amiss.

But one day in June, during a visit home, he had a breakdown.

“Do you have any idea how depressed I’ve been?” he asked her, admitting he hadn’t attended many classes that year. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about his expulsion, his parents’ battle with Appleby and all the attention it had brought. The dailies had covered the legal proceedings and his friends knew about it—he was the kid who was suing his private school for a piece of paper. Nicky had never seen her son so upset, and realized that he’d been hiding from everyone, including them. He quit school and came home.

Gautam is now a handsome 21-year-old, with a short beard and his mother’s easy smile. He drives a black BMW, a gift from his parents. He splits his time between his parents’ house and Waterloo, where he recently began taking courses part-time at Conestoga College. When I met him, he was finely dressed in black slacks and a grey striped button-up shirt, with a silver ring on his index finger. He remains close to his parents; he squeezes his mother’s shoulder when he leaves the room. The fight against Appleby has bonded them as a family, Nicky says. She and Gautam enrolled in a weekend motivational course on leadership and self-esteem. Gautam says it was a blast, partly because their instructor was rapper Ludacris’s stepmom. His Facebook page lists his current occupation as self-employed and pursuing “personal growth and development.”

When I ask him what he spends his time doing now, he says he works for himself on an energy company start-up that’s partnered with Bell Canada. But he won’t tell me the name of the company, and ignores me twice when I ask where his office is. His ultimate goal? “Financial freedom before 24. And just kind of take it easy from there,” he says confidently. He continues: “Now my philosophy is, if I want to be taught something, that person has to be an expert. Which is something that most traditional schools don’t do. If I want to be a great mathematician, I want to learn from a great mathematician.” It’s hard to tell which came first, the expulsion or the bluster. The Setias admit that their son is on the defensive. “He’s not doing much. He’s trying to prove that he’s okay,” Nicky says. “We’re just being very patient right now.”

Nicky still thinks about what it would have been like to watch Gautam walk across the stage in his Appleby blazer, bagpipes playing and the lake shining in the distance, to receive his hard-earned diploma. If the appeal decision comes down in the Setias’ favour, it’s a distinction that he may yet receive. But for the family, it would be a tainted honour now. “You try to send your child to the best school,” Nicky says. “When that best becomes a nightmare, what do you do?”

As we talk, Nicky lays out shrimp, sushi and kebabs for everyone, but Gautam says he’s not hungry. “You look tired.” Nicky says. He leaves the house to drive into the city to meet a friend. Nicky, always looking out for her only son, packs food in a carton for him to eat later.