A toxic culture has invaded the Montreal high school basketball program where coaches have charged, students say
Warning: This story contains disturbing language and subject matter.
For most of her high school life, Mary was on the basketball court five days a week playing the game she loved.
But the teenager slipped into the gym knowing she would have to protect herself against a constant barrage of insults from Daniel Lacasse, her coach at Saint-Laurent High School.
“He told me I was nothing. He said I was stupid – I’m not going anywhere in life,” Mary said in an interview. CBC News does not use his real name to protect his privacy.
“Honestly, it was awful. He was very abusive, emotionally. He used awful, homophobic words.”
Lacasse, 43, was arrested by Montreal police at school earlier this month, along with two other coaches, Charles-Xavier Boislard, also 43, and Robert Luu, 31.
The sex-related charges involve two former players on the high school women’s basketball team, but police say there may be more victims dating back to 2005.
Lacasse faces a charge of sexual exploitation. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
In the aftermath of the arrests, CBC News spoke with four former and current basketball players at the school, as well as a staff member and others with knowledge of the basketball program.
Players recounted how Lacasse called them derogatory names and made fun of their physical appearance.
“He used words like gay man (fucking homosexual), sale of plots (dirty pussies). All disgusting words in practices and matches,” Mary said.
Several players have said he was manipulative, as well as emotionally and mentally abusive, while overseeing the Express basketball program.
Stories from students and staff — and from a parent who filed a lawsuit against the school — also paint a picture of a basketball program that seemed to prioritize winning over the mental well-being of students. athletes.
“He just played with the head of every player”
The walls inside the high school gymnasium are covered with dozens of championship banners, a testament to the success of its athletic programs.
This solid track record attracted talented players to the school, but the toxic atmosphere prompted some players to leave.
Shamiera Plunkett was a key player for Express in the 2015-16 season, but her talent didn’t spare her from abuse.
“He told me I was a whore,” said Plunkett, now 22. “He was just emotionally, physically, mentally abusive. He just played with every player’s head basically.”
At the time, Plunkett had a strained relationship with his father, who lived in Toronto. She said Lacasse used it against her when things weren’t going well on the pitch.
Plunkett said Lacasse’s presence was overwhelming. She said many of her teammates saw Lacasse as a father figure, but she wasn’t like the other girls.
“For me, respect is key, and Daniel didn’t respect me,” she said. “He would build you up to bring you down.”
Plunkett left for Toronto after Grade 10, largely, she says, to get away from school.
A winning culture, but at what cost?
Lacasse helped turn the school into a basketball factory, sending dozens of girls to colleges and universities across Canada and the United States.
“He cultivated discipline through sport. And it showed on the pitch and in the classroom“, said Philippe Malo, who blogs about high school sports in Quebec and has followed the rise of the basketball program.
Malo said many of the Express players came from immigrant families whose parents were determined to improve their lives in Canada.
“It’s not like parents can afford to buy them a bunch of stuff. Weekend cottages aren’t a thing,” Malo said. “So for many children, sport becomes an important escape.”
A current staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said Lacasse’s abusive language was no secret.
The staffer said he heard Lacasse call his players “stupid” and would comment on their weight.
“He was a bully to everyone,” the staffer said. But Lacasse also held his players to account academically, the staffer said.
He said colleagues had spoken to Lacasse about his behavior, but little had changed. The staffer believes Lacasse’s success on the court may have caused the school to look the other way.
“He made the school look good. He made the school board look good,” he said.
“Anyone who complained, it never worked out. There was never any disciplinary action. It always fell on deaf ears.”
A parent’s complaint is ignored
The daughter of Grace Ngoyi, who played under Lacasse in 2018, said she saw the coach yelling at players during games and practices.
“It was the lack of respect. He had no respect for his players and that made me feel more and more uncomfortable.”
She files a formal notice with Lacasse and writes a letter to the school to denounce his behavior.
Ngoyi said she encountered resistance from the school. The school told her that she would speak with Lacasse about her behavior. Satisfied, she dropped her complaint, but now says she feels a sense of guilt.
“I could have fought harder, despite everything that comes with it. Because we would have found out about this earlier, which is happening right now,” she said.
Several investigations launched
Lacasse, meanwhile, was being rewarded for his success on the field. Basketball Quebec hired him to lead a women’s team from 2016 to 2019. He led them to a national championship this past year.
In the wake of the criminal charges, the Quebec government has launched an investigation into Basketball Quebec.
The organization said in a statement that it would undertake its own “efforts to seek out and invite potential victims among those who have been in contact with Mr. Lacasse”.
“It gave me anxiety and stress and I’m still traumatized by it.”– Mary, former Express player and Saint-Laurent student
Both the school and the service center that oversees it, the Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Service Center, declined an interview request for this story.
The lawyer representing Lacasse and Boislard, Eddy Ménard, declined to comment on the allegations. Luu’s attorney did not return a request for comment by email and phone. The coaches have been suspended pending their legal issues.
The service center ordered an independent investigation into the criminal charges and, in a statement, said the allegations were “worrying”. The Quebec Ministry of Education also ordered an investigation into the school.
Influence beyond the court
Another former student, who played her last three years of high school under Lacasse, said outbursts of anger were something many girls had learned to live with.
“Our team would be afraid of making mistakes during games,” she said.
The student said Boislard, who coached her before Lacasse, also often hurled insults at players.
Boillard is charged with sexual exploitation, sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching and sexual assault.
Plunkett once said that Boislard, in a fit of rage because the girls weren’t playing well, threw a table inside the locker room.
But the students say it was Lacasse’s insults that hit home the most. At one point, one student recalled, Lacasse told her, ‘You’ll never get far in life.'”
A student who did not play on the team but interacted with Lacasse when he was in charge of detention said he humiliated the students in the class.
“You would never see him smile normally,” the student said. “But when he humiliated a student or bullied one of them, that’s when you saw him smile.”
Following the arrests, a student who played for Lacasse and is still at school said the team was in shock. The players tried to focus on basketball – and the alumni held practices – but the student said the team was in disarray.
“There are players you don’t even see at school anymore.”
“I worked hard to prove him wrong”
Like Plunkett, Mary also tried to quit. When she told him she no longer wanted to be part of Express, Lacasse was livid and sent her a series of angry texts, shared with CBC News.
‘He said ‘No one ever betrays me. You will regret it. Nobody stabs me in the back,” and then he called me a “fuckin’ idiot,” she said.
In the end, Mary stayed with the team.
Yet even after graduating, she couldn’t leave Lacasse behind. Mary said she learned Lacasse had called the college she was trying to get into, telling them she was a waste of time and not smart enough to pass classes.
Mary said her experience with Lacasse haunted her.
“It gave me anxiety and stress and I’m still traumatized by it,” she said.
After being told for years that she was too stupid to stand up for anything, she used her words as fuel. She rebuilt her confidence — thriving in CEGEP and eventually earning a university degree.
“The reason I was really successful in my studies is because I worked hard to prove him wrong,” she said. “I was an underdog and he never, ever believed in me.”