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Few school programs have garnered as much media coverage as Vancouver's now-infamous Quest. The one-semester high-school course, active during the 1970s and 80s and designed to expose students to nature and the great outdoors, was also a breeding ground for an ugly side of human nature: Teacher Tom Ellison went to trial in 2006, facing sex-related charges involving a dozen students. He was convicted of two counts of indecent assault, one count of assault and two counts of gross indecency. He was sentenced in January to two years of house arrest.

While the extensive media coverage of the trial exposed the creepy horrors that went on in the classroom, the camping trips and Ellison's sailboat, a documentary airing on Newsworld tonight adds a human face to the crimes, as several former students recount their experiences. Through interviews with several of the women (now adults) who were seduced by Ellison as students - and one who was not - School of Secrets explores the motivations of these teenage girls and the consequences of what they suffered.

"We all thought he was ... really dreamy," Denise Tupman, one of the former Questers, says of Ellison. She goes on to describe how a massage session turned into something much more sinister, shortly after her 17th birthday. "Take off your shirt and we'll do it right," she remembers him saying.

"I just wanted to be a favourite student," says Anett, 40, another of Ellison's young conquests. "I just wanted to be a teacher's pet."

The women are thoughtful, articulate, sometimes angry, sometimes - believe it or not - bordering on nostalgic. They are honest - shockingly, at times. They are amazed, looking back, at the things that happened, and their own naiveté. The result is an intimate portrayal of what these teenage girls went through and what these adult women continue to go through.

"I think they were incredibly strong to share that kind of intimacy," producer/director Melanie Wood says. "To open up your personal life like that takes some strength."

Wood, 54, began researching the project in 2000 after her filmmaking partner, producer Eunice Lee, told her about the Quest program and its secrets. Lee had gone to Prince of Wales High School, home of Quest, and had heard the rumours for years. Now, she heard that someone had gone to the police.

By the time the case went to court, the filmmakers were well into the project. "The court coverage to me was just not even the tip of the iceberg," Wood says. The documentary "gives people more of an insight into how it happened ... and reminds everyone what our head space is like when we're 15, 16, 17."

For the women who had already testified in court, the film offered an opportunity to tell their stories in a more personal way. "It's very different sitting on a witness stand and answering very precise ... questions from a lawyer," says Laura Anderson, 43, one of the women interviewed for the film. "With Melanie, we had the ability to tell the whole story."

Anderson was 17 when she joined the Quest program. Her encounter with Ellison happened after a slow dance at a Quest event. "I feel like I want to kiss you," she remembers saying to her teacher. And so it began.

Anderson was the first to testify at Ellison's trial. That's where she met Wood. The filmmaker attended court daily and Anderson grew to trust her. "She made friends with people and not in a kind of exploitive I-want-your-story kind of way, but really developing sincere kinds of relationships with people."

Wood was also able to relate to her subjects on a deep level: she, too, had sex with a teacher when she was in high school. She says her situation was an isolated case, different from what happened at Quest.

"Mine was a teacher who had a biological urge and he didn't stop," she said. "I'm not justifying it, but it isn't to me the same story as this complete abuse of power."

Wood hasn't gone to police and doesn't plan to.

Amazingly, she says she was not even conscious of the connection between her history and the Quest story when she began working on the documentary. She did not share her own background with her interviewees. But she still thinks it might have had an impact. "What it did for me going into those interviews with the women - and maybe that's what they felt - [was that]I wasn't judging them. There was no judgment about who they were or what they had done, because I could so easily understand that. Because I'd been through the same thing."

Wood did not have trouble finding former Questers who were willing to share their personal stories in this public forum. Ellison, though, "politely refused" her request for an interview. Wood says the Vancouver School Board also turned down the request she made for an interview through a public-relations firm, but the board says it was not aware of the request -and the PR firm says it was not asked for an interview. The board did acknowledge having turned down a request by Wood to film in the old Quest classroom.

"The reason we said no to that," says Chris Kelly, superintendent of schools for the VSB, was that "we are obviously really sensitive to the whole phenomenon of the Quest program and we just didn't think it was advisable for us to have the documentary filmed in the same space ... because, frankly, it was such a long time ago."

(The board released recommendations last week stemming from the Ellison case. These include a code of conduct and disciplinary-record checks for prospective employees. Wood calls the recommendations disappointing. "I have to admit I started laughing when I started reading them," she says. "I don't see anything new here.")

For Wood, this film is not simply about the Vancouver School Board or Quest or sexual abuse - it's about the need for society to talk publicly about difficult issues. "It wasn't just about those women and that teacher," she says. "It's issues we have in our society; trying to hush up the stuff we don't want to talk about. And not being open and honest about things that are going wrong. And I think in all aspects of our lives, that's really important, whether it's personally or in a community or government. Transparency is key to functioning properly."

Clichéd though it might sound, both Wood and Anderson were also motivated by a desire to encourage other women to come forward - in related or unrelated cases. Anderson says that since the ban on her identity was lifted (the ban was automatic because of the sexual nature of the charges), she has been approached by several people who have thanked her for coming forward. "Women are looking for models of strength," she says.

They'll find several of them on Newsworld tonight - both in front of and behind the camera.

School of Secrets airs on The Lens today at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBC Newsworld.