Yukon’s education department should have immediately informed parents at Hidden Valley Elementary School about sexual abuse allegations against an educational assistant in 2019, but remained silent until a news story forced it to acknowledge the situation a year and a half later .
That was one of the conclusions of a report released Thursday by the Yukon Ombudsman, which concluded the department’s delay in informing parents was unjustified, unfair and a “failure to communicate.”
Entitled left in the dark, the report is the first of two by the ombudsman and follows separate reviews by the territory’s children and young people’s ombudsman and a lawyer hired by the Yukon government. It all centers on why the government did not inform Hidden Valley parents after a student reported in November 2019 that he had been sexually abused by educational assistant William Auclair-Bellemare.
While Auclair-Bellemare was immediately expelled from school and later pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference, the report says it wasn’t until Breaking: reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim in July 2021 that parents found out. of the situation.
The article sparked outrage and led to two new alleged victims coming forward to police (charges in one case were later stayed by the Crown, while a verdict is pending in the other).
The ombudsman’s office began its investigation in October 2021 after receiving a complaint from a parent alleging that the department’s delay in sharing information “offended” families and also resulted in other students allegedly victimized by Auclair-Bellemare did not receive support soon enough.
The report, signed by public defender Jason Pedlar and investigator Rick Smith, concluded that the complaint was valid.
Parents missed a ‘critical opportunity’ to talk to their children and get help right away
The ombudsman’s office found that the education department “rapidly contemplated” sharing information: a letter from the school principal to parents was drafted on December 13, 2019.
The letter was never sent. Instead, the Public Service Commission, the Department of Justice and the RCMP “engaged” and “amplified” legal and privacy concerns about sharing the information. While the focus should have been on the obligation to notify Hidden Valley parents of the allegations, the report says the discussion focused on what could be shared with the public.
As a result, nothing was shared at all.
Had parents been informed immediately, they could have had the “critical opportunity to speak with their children and provide or seek necessary support in a timely manner,” the report says, and also “would likely have led to disclosures by child victims.” additional”. “.
The education department, the report continues, had resources that should have guided staff on how to act, including a government-wide communications policy.
However, while the policy says senior managers should be involved in communications about serious issues, “major decision-making” on Auclair-Bellemare was largely left to “lower-level individuals” in 2019, it says. the report, with little or no oversight by the deputy minister, minister or cabinet.
The report also found the department failed to comply with a number of principles within the communications policy, including being “a responsible public service”.
“In the context of parents, it is reasonable to expect that a responsible public service, especially in the emerging situation of child sexual abuse, will coordinate its applicable communication resources and inform parents in an accurate and timely manner,” the report says. says.
“As a result, the evidence shows that parents were outraged by the Department’s lack of communication with them. It made them feel that the Department was not taking necessary action. [Auclair-Bellemare] serious matter or had other motives.”
The education department also had a “comprehensive” crisis communications manual with step-by-step instructions and “context-specific communication templates,” the report says, including information on sexual assault in school and violence between staff and students. students.
Additionally, the department paid for “crisis communication plan license” and “crisis communication drill” contracts in 2014, although it is unclear what happened to the contracts and whether the crisis communication manual was used.
“The only thing we know is that an alleged sexual assault at school had been duly reported [in 2019] but, despite having paid for specific and professional guidance… the Department remained silent,” the report says.
Had department staff referenced the handbook or communications policy, there may also have been a “more focused discussion” about why parents needed to be informed of the situation, the report says.
The Department “probably would have maintained its silence”
The department’s decision not to communicate “abruptly changed” after Breaking: published an article about a lawsuit filed by the 2019 victim, the report says, leading the RCMP to receive new information about other alleged victims and a growing pressure from parents to obtain “vital information.”
The department “was unexpectedly forced to react to the outcome” of the article and made a “change of course,” sending parents a letter in August 2021 and holding a Zoom meeting in November in which it shared information that was previously considered too risky from a legal point of view. .
“If it were not for the media story,” the report says, “we are of the opinion that the Department would probably have maintained its silence on the [Auclair-Bellemare] matter, thus perpetuating the injustice of depriving parents of taking any timely action regarding their children and also withholding information that, once disclosed, led directly to two further revelations of criminal conduct.”
Parents should not have had to learn about the Auclair-Bellemare affair through the media, the report says, nor should they have had to wait so long to access counseling and other resources.
While the department met its legal obligation by reporting the matter in 2019 to the RCMP and child and family services, it failed to meet its legal and policy obligations to inform parents, the report said. It notes that at no time was the department prevented from informing parents either by privacy legislation or by a publication ban.
The report does not make any recommendations. Instead, it says the ombudsman will issue a second report this fall examining whether the Safe Schools Action Plan, developed by the education department in response to the report ordered by the Yukon government, adequately addresses and mitigates the problems it identified.
Yukon Education Minister Jeanie McLean was not immediately available for an interview, but said in a news release that the territorial government accepts the report’s conclusions.