The following story contains details of child abuse and sexual assault. Rapid access counselling is available in the Yukon at 867-456-3838. Affected families can request support at the resources listed at the bottom of this story.
A review of the Yukon government’s response to sexualized abuse at Hidden Valley Elementary School has found a “litany of troubling findings from classroom to central administration levels,” according to the territory’s Child and Youth Advocate office.
“These are all cracks in the system that have contributed and continue to contribute to safety issues in Yukon schools,” reads the review issued by the advocate.
Education Minister Jeanie McLean tabled the review in the Yukon Legislative Assembly on Oct. 12.
In an Oct. 12 press release, advocate Annette King said the review surfaced systemic failures in how the government generally responds to child abuse in schools.
“The impacts of abuse for children and families can be mitigated by timely coordinate responses,” she said. “Unfortunately, that was not the case here.”
The review says children were not prioritized and their rights were violated before, during and after educational assistant William Auclair-Bellemare was charged in 2019 with sexual interference of a student in his care at Hidden Valley.
The review states that “longstanding gaps in educational supports for students with special needs created opportunity for harm to occur,” compounded by the government’s inadequate response following the incident.
“The responses from [Yukon government] that we have observed do not provide confidence that students with special needs are being adequately protected at school, nor that responses from the systems meant to protect them are developmentally appropriate,” reads the report.
“Communications and decisions made in the aftermath of these incidents demonstrate an alarming lack of attention to upholding children’s rights on the part of the government, despite their statutory obligation to do so.”
The advocate office has found numerous issues with how the government is responding to safety concerns in several schools.
“It is clear that substantial systemic change is necessary to ensure Yukon students feel safe and comfortable in their spaces of learning,” the report states.
This is one of four reviews of the government’s response, which the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office says indicates just how wide-reaching the fallout of the incident has been.
The report sums up its serious concerns into four categories: reporting and investigating sexualized abuse in schools, therapeutic supports and coordinated response, educational support for children with special needs and communication to families and the public.
A timeline of the situation in the review opens with a possible situation of sexualized abuse in the 2015-16 school year, when the Yukon Party was governing, although there appeared to be no formal record of the incident.
“During the 2015-2016 school year, [the Education department] did not uphold their mandatory obligation to report abuse when a classroom teacher expressed concerns about an incident involving an [educational assistant]. This concern was handled internally by [the Education department] and not communicated to the appropriate authorities,” the report states.
“Consequently, the [educational assistant] was able to continue to work with vulnerable students without an opportunity for the appropriate agencies to explore the incident and assess risk.”
In the end, the report outlines eight recommendations, which it calls “child-centred calls to action.”
“It is hard to describe the feelings of pain, frustration and helplessness shared with us in person, on Zoom, over the phone and in emails,” reads the report’s conclusion.
“People were hurt, and are still hurting, from [the Yukon government’s] incredibly poor handling of the situation.”
The opposition parties pressed the Education minister on the review throughout question period on Oct. 13, with the Yukon Party calling for accountability.
Last fall, the Yukon Party and NDP MLAs voted in favour of a motion indicating they believe Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, the former Education minister, should resign.
Following question period, White told reporters that the report highlights what “everyone knew already, which is that there’s a deep, deep disappointment or hurt, and that the department of Education let the people they were responsible for down.”
The report clearly disseminates the actions that need to be taken, she said, noting the recommendation that ties it all together is the government’s response.
McLean committed to responding to the advocate’s review by Nov. 22 and a subsequent progress report within 12 months, as the review recommends.
“My heart goes out to the families and to the children, and I know what this type of harm can do to an individual,” she told reporters in the cabinet office.
“Do I understand? Do I stand with families and children that have experienced abuse? Yes, I do. And I’ll continue to do that and do the work of this government to respond to these new recommendations and findings and to complete the implementation of the Safer Schools Action Plan.”
The Safer Schools Action Plan, which was previously titled the Hidden Valley Action Plan, contains 23 government commitments in response to seven recommendations in an independent report from January.
McLean did not say which recommendation in the latest review will be the government’s first priority. She said the Yukon government will look at all of the recommendations and respond to them together.
“I really stand by the work we’re doing to reimagine education and to move things into and to build a new foundation for education, really,” she said.
“We’re in a historic and exciting time in education, despite all of the issues that, you know, like this that we’re talking about. We know that we have work to do and we’re committed to doing that work on behalf of Yukoners.”
Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon told reporters the report “lays bare the incredible inadequacy” of the government’s response to the situation since 2019.
“This report is as scathing and devastating for the government as I’ve ever seen in my time following Yukon politics,” he said.
Here are the findings summarized in the report:
– Children’s rights to protection, best interests and supports were violated.
– Legislation and interagency protocols obliging educators to report suspected child abuse and work collaboratively to identify additional victims were not followed.
– Investigations did not consider developmental capacities of identified victims or potential victims.
– Children’s rights to therapeutic supports have not been fully implemented.
– Access to services has not been effectively coordinated.
– Without adequate support from [the Education department] and [the Health and Social Services department], [Hidden Valley Elementary School] staff have struggled to provide resources and supports to students and their families.
– Children’s rights to protection, dignity, and education were violated.
– Inadequacies in inclusive education led to an environment where abuse could occur.
– Children’s rights to be cared for by their parents/guardians were violated.
– Impacts of sexualized assault on children was not centred in [the Education department’s] response.
In a statement from cabinet communications, families can request support by contacting any of the following:
– Department of Education’s school community consultant Brenda Jenner at 867-456-6587 or firstname.lastname@example.org;
– Child, Youth and Family Treatment Team at 867-456-3838;
– Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services at 867- 456-3838;
– Victim Services at 867-667-8500.
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com