Editor’s note: The following story contains details of sexual assault. Rapid access counselling is available in the Yukon at 867-456-3838. Mental health support is available 24/7 at the Wellness Together Canada hotline at 1-866-585-0445.
In January 2023, a young woman made a passionate plea to politicians and education officials imploring them to do something to quell what she argues is systemic indifference to a wave of sexual violence she had barely managed to live through during her years in a Whitehorse high school. This appeal was made in a letter to political party leaders and Yukon department of Education officials. The letter was also forwarded to the News.
The News is not using the former student’s name or the name of the school to protect her from further harm.
“In my experience and opinion, the Yukon government and [school name] does not take sexual assault seriously. Whether all recipients of this letter mean to or not, you are all directly contributing to the pain and trauma underage victims of sexual violence experience,” she wrote from the safe distance of an Outside university.
The young woman’s experience carried through for four tortuous years of high school. She described “having to go to school with peers who hated me for finding the courage to talk about my sexual assault and constantly being afraid in my school.”
“Nobody should be afraid in school,” she wrote.
Those words are echoed by Annette King, the Yukon’s child and youth advocate, in speaking about the school system in general.
“All children should be able to go to school safely,” King said.
“And all children and youth should not have ongoing violence and need a place to recover and heal from harm.”
King spoke with the News Feb. 15.
When something horrific happens, King continued, “it really isn’t just about the incident itself. It’s about what everything that comes afterwards.
“How people respond to child abuse can have the greatest impact on how a child will recover,” she said. “If a child is believed, when they tell somebody about what’s happened to them, then that validation, right there, can start the beginning of recovery.
“How they experience their social realm after abuse, can add new layers of trauma.”
The social side was not good for the writer of the letter. She wrote, “I was shunned by my classmates and was driven to the point where I felt my only resort was suicide.”
The letter to officials describes a system ill-equipped to handle the realities of sexual assault and a rape culture that is accepted as a normal part of being in high school.
“It was common to hear rumours of girls getting raped and assaulted; it was never shocking to hear about a girl getting raped at a party or groped at the school bus stop,” she wrote.
Assaults in a school setting
King investigates stories from around the Yukon.
“It is devastating to have your child harmed by somebody else, especially when it’s somehow connected to a school,” said King.
“We’ve recommended a coordinated response for every incident that comes to a school so that the department of Education works with other professionals to respond in a way that support all of the students and get them what they need and keep that safety plan going.”
This was a key recommendation to department of Education officials following the Hidden Valley Elementary School situation.
Lessons from Hidden Valley School
In 2021, revelations rattled the Yukon when parents and children at the Hidden Valley school learned a school aide had been convicted for sexual interference with a student. Also revealed was the subsequent failure of school officials and the RCMP to notify parents or follow up with further investigation after the school aide’s firing and conviction.
Four investigations followed — two into government mishandling: one by Vancouver-based lawyer Amanda Rogers and second by the office of the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate (YCYAO). There is also a review by the Yukon ombudsman’s office and the Yukon RCMP’s investigation was reviewed by an RCMP division in British Columbia.
King’s report, Responding to Sexualized Abuse in Yukon Schools: Review of Policies and Governmental Response, also identified a failure to act following an incident in 2015 with the same aide.
The child and youth advocate’s report reads: “It is important to note that although the sexualized abuse allegations took place at a specific school, the subject of this review is the inadequate policies and response of [Education] and [Health and Social Services] at the central administrative levels, not of the school itself.”
The people in the system that King was referring to were many of the same people the young woman addressed in her 2023 email.
King’s report continued, “Indeed, over the past year YCYAO has found numerous issues with how [Yukon government] is responding to safety concerns in several schools.”
Policy inadequacies remain
In September 2022, the department of Education signed a policy that details department protocols when harm is first reported/suspected by adults towards students. The eight-page policy is titled Preventing and Responding to Harm by Adults.
It provides principles such as: safe and caring school environments; protection from harm; victim-centred approach; transparency; timeliness; and accountability and collaboration. It details roles and responsibilities, procedures and has several bullet points to consider in response and reporting for allegations, both current and historical.
At the conclusion of the policy document, it makes two assistant deputy ministers in the department of education responsible for oversight of the policy.
This policy, however, is not applicable to harm caused to students by other students, not even if on school property. This gap was quickly picked up upon by Yukon NDP Leader Kate White.
White was the first to respond to the young woman after receiving the letter. White, in turn, wrote the minister of Education asking if the minister would be willing to work with women’s organizations and victim services to develop a policy that clearly lays out what happens if such an event arises involving student-on-student harm, including sexual assault.
White told the News March 13 she thought the response would come back as a “yes.” Instead, she said, “the response came back saying that there are lots of policies that the minister felt addressed the issue and, thank you for your letter.”
The News received a statement from the department of Education on March 6.
“Incidents that involve only minors are assessed and addressed on a case-by-case basis, with the initial priority being to ensure the health and safety of impacted students. The school principal is responsible for holding students accountable for their conduct while at school and while involved in school-related activities. “
The Yukon Party leader also received the letter from the young woman and forwarded it on to the RCMP. Later, Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon did reach out to the young woman. A spokesperson for the party said that “it’s not an issue where it seems a partisan intervention from the opposition would be helpful at this point.”
“It’s a political issue, because it’s not being dealt with,” she said.
There is a policy missing. White added that this policy should never be done school-by-school, and that a new policy needs to reside within the department of Education.
White said she will continue to advocate. “I want to talk about it. I’m going to talk about it again.”
White was adament. So was the young woman who’d penned her story to politicians and bureaucrats in a brave move to make a difference for others.
Her letter included a plea that education leaders ensure “that the school have a policy in place that protects the victims foremost.”
She closed with the statement, “I will not stop fighting until I am 100 per cent convinced that another young individual will never have to experience what I did.”
And she signed her full name.
Contact Lawrie Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org