Parents at Whitehorse’s Hidden Valley Elementary School are “justified” in their anger at the Yukon government for its “inadequate” response to the case of an educational assistant who sexually abused a child at the school in 2019.
That’s one of six key findings in a final report by lawyer Amanda Rogers, whom the government hired to conduct a review after mounting criticism of its handling of the situation — and in particular, the failure to notify parents about the case.
The report, which also contains seven recommendations, was shared with parents Monday evening and made public shortly after.
“In my view, there is no one person to be held responsible for the Government’s failure to communicate with parents earlier. Assumptions and mistakes were made that impacted how the [William Auclair-Bellemare] matter was handled,” Rogers wrote, referring to the educational assistant at the centre of the controversy.
“Unfortunately, we cannot undo time. The best we can hope for is to learn from these mistakes and ensure better processes are put in place to ensure families’ trust and confidence in the public education system and its ability to educate children and keep them safe while at school is restored.”
Auclair-Bellemare was arrested in November 2019. He later pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference and was sentenced to six months’ jail and two years of probation, but neither Yukon education officials nor the Yukon RCMP informed parents or the public about the criminal proceedings.
Instead, the information only became widely known after CBC News reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim in July 2021. The news drew outrage from parents, led to police laying new charges against Auclair-Bellemare for the alleged abuse of two other children at Hidden Valley, and quickly became a political quagmire for the Yukon government.
Besides finding that the government responded inadequately, Rogers also made four other findings, including:
- the Yukon government lacked a coordinated approach to addressing the matter;
- COVID-19 and employee turnover also hindered the response;
- Hidden Valley administrators had a duty to report and document an incident that allegedly happened with Auclair-Bellemare in the 2014/15 school year, but handled it internally instead; and
- a lack of educational assistant training in special education contributed to Auclair-Bellemare’s access to vulnerable children and the concealment of his criminal behaviour.
Rogers’ seven recommendations are:
- implement a policy or process for interdepartmental cooperation for significant events and provide appropriate training;
- implement an education department policy for addressing school incidents, including criminal allegations against employees;
- provide better training for school administrators and better on-boarding of education department employees,;
- ensure computerized databases in all Yukon schools are capable of easily identifying families of students both past and present, and information about educational assistant assignments;
- ensure school administrators, teachers and staff are provided training in respect of their duty to report and document suspected abuse on an annual basis;
- develop and implement a policy with the RCMP with regards to information sharing and setting out a process for working together in the event serious allegations of criminal conduct are levelled against an employee; and
- fully implement the recommendations set out in the 2019 Auditor General of Canada’s report on the Yukon’s education, especially the ones related to inclusive education for students with special needs.
There are currently three other Hidden Valley-related reviews or investigations underway — one by the Yukon child and youth advocate, one by the Yukon ombudsman, and one on the Yukon RCMP’s 2019 investigation.
‘I am truly sorry that this happened’
At a press conference Tuesday, Premier Sandy Silver said his government had accepted all of Rogers’ recommendations and would “immediately” start work on them.
“I know that there’s a lot of anger and frustration, legitimate anger and legitimate frustration, and I know people want to see action taken to address what’s happened,” he said, adding that the report would help prevent the situation from ever happening again.
“On behalf of the entire government and as the premier, I apologize … I am truly sorry that this happened and I do know that we need to do better.”
The policy and communications failures, Silver continued, are a “critical gap that needs to be addressed immediately.”
He said he’d instructed Stephen Mills, the deputy minister of the executive council office and “the top-ranking public servant of the Yukon government,” to create a deputy ministers’ committee to oversee implementation of Rogers’ recommendations.
Mills will also develop and present an implementation action plan to cabinet by Feb. 18, Silver said, and education minister Jeanie McLean has invited Hidden Valley parents to form their own advisory committee as well.
‘No one feels good’ about the situation
Although Rogers’ report and recommendations focus largely on the education department, Silver said it had implications for “all levels of government.” He described the case as “one of the worst things I’ve heard of in my 10-plus years as a politician happening in a school system,” and that the Yukon government would “make sure that we implement all of the recommendations.”
Rogers, at the press conference, said that everyone she spoke to as part of her review, including various levels of current and former government employees, were candid and honest, and that “no one feels good” about how the situation had played out.
“I could see that there was this collective desire to learn from this and be better and do better … Unfortunately, it does take a situation to reveal the lack of policy or training or preparedness to deal with something,” she said. “That’s often how these gaps are detected, that’s an unfortunate reality.”
Rogers also said she believed there was a genuine desire from people in leadership to address the issues she’d uncovered.
“I wouldn’t have done this review if I didn’t think that there were going to be changes made out of it and I didn’t believe the recommendations were going to be implemented,” she said.