Both the RCMP and the Yukon’s department of education acknowledged that a “major, major error” was made in the handling of a sexual assault investigation at Hidden Valley Elementary School.
“We should have done better. We should have been more diligent,” said Chief Superintendent Scott Sheppard during a press conference on Sept. 23.
Sheppard was referring to an investigation that took place in November 2019, after reports that a student was sexually assaulted by an education assistant at the school.
While the staff member was quickly removed from the school, other parents were never informed of the incident and there was no attempt made to identify other potential victims. A follow-up investigation was launched more than a year later following media reports and identified two more victims.
“At the time of the investigation, we did not have specific information that there were possibly other victims involved and the investigation remained focused on the safety and the privacy of the first victim and their family,” said Sheppard.
“Investigators ought to have known at the time, given the position of the now-convicted offender as a teacher’s aide, that he would have had possibly the opportunity to victimize other students prior to November 18, 2019. As such, it is clear to me we should have done better,” he said.
“We should have been more diligent and worked more closely with our partners, and more thoroughly with Hidden Valley School and [Family and Children’s Services] to look for more potential victims, whilst balancing the needs for privacy of the first victim and their family. We did not do that,” Sheppard added.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. This is a very unusual occurrence.”
Sheppard said a review of the investigation has been launched by the E Division Major Crimes Unit.
He suggested that the number of people involved in the file may have “contributed to the confusion.”
“I think I’ll be in a better position to comment on where key mistakes are made, and possibly by whom, once the complete review is completed,” he said.
Parents at Hidden Valley Elementary School found out about the incident in July, over a year after the original incident, after local media outlets covered a civil suit brought forward against the government by one of the parents of the victim.
On Thursday, deputy minister of education Nicole Morgan acknowledged it was a failure to not communicate directly with parents.
“The Department of Education fully acknowledges the trust of families at Hidden Valley School was broken,” said Morgan. “We heard clearly from families last night that we have failed them. For this we are sorry. We heard a desire for a public review of our policies and procedures.”
Morgan said during the investigation department officials “struggled with the tension between our obligation to protect a student’s privacy and their dignity and that of the families and public’s right to know.”
The apology came after a closed-door meeting between RCMP, the department and parents at Hidden Valley Elementary School the night before. Minister of Education Jeanie McLean was not present at the press conference, but did attend the meeting.
Morgan said the department now has a list of “action items” from parents, including a public review of policies across all Yukon schools to prevent similar incidents.
Sheppard said the investigation into the incident began on Nov. 17, 2019 with a report from child protective services.
Documents obtained by the Yukon News show that the original tip came from a teacher at the school, who reported a student had spoken with her about being taken to a private room in the school for a “body check” by education assistant William Auclair-Bellemare.
Sheppard said the student was interviewed on Nov. 18, the same day the education assistant was removed from the school. The investigation continued until charges were laid on Nov. 22 for sexual assault and sexual interference.
Auclair-Bellemare pled guilty to sexual interference and was convicted on Jan. 18, 2021. He spent six months in prison before release on probation.
In July, local media outlets reported on a civil suit between the parent of the victim, the abuser and the Yukon government that alleges the school failed in its duty to protect children.
After learning about the sexual assault, a number of parents, particularly those with special needs children at the school, were shocked that they were not informed about the incident or questioned to make sure there were no further victims.
A follow-up investigation by the RCMP identified two more victims and has resulted in seven new charges being laid against Auclair-Bellemare including sexual exploitation of a person with a disability, two counts of forcible confinement, two counts of sexual assault, one count of sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching.
Auclair-Bellemare was released on bail on Sept. 13 with conditions restricting his movements and interaction with minors and is awaiting his next court appearance.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org