Delay in informing parents was unwarranted, unfair and a ‘communications failure,’ report says
The Yukon education department should have immediately told Hidden Valley Elementary School parents about sexual abuse allegations against an educational assistant in 2019, but kept quiet until a news story forced it to acknowledge the situation a year-and-a-half later.
That was among the findings in a report released by the Yukon Ombudsman Thursday, which concluded the department’s delay in informing parents was unwarranted, unfair and a “communications failure.”
Entitled Left In The Dark, the report is the first of two from the ombudsman and follows separate reviews by the territory’s child and youth advocate and a Yukon-government-hired lawyer. All centre on why the government didn’t inform Hidden Valley parents after a student reported in November 2019 that he’d been sexually abused by educational assistant William Auclair-Bellemare.
While Auclair-Bellemare was immediately removed from the school and later pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference, the report says it wasn’t until CBC News reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim in July 2021 that parents learned about the situation.
Investigation launched October 2021
The ombudsman’s office launched its investigation in October 2021 after receiving a complaint from a parent alleging the department’s delay in sharing information “aggrieved” families and also resulted in other students allegedly victimized by Auclair-Bellemare not getting support soon enough.
The report, signed by ombudsman Jason Pedlar and investigator Rick Smith, concluded that the complaint was valid.
Parents lost ‘critical opportunity’ to talk to kids, get help right away
The ombudsman’s office found the education department “quickly contemplated” sharing information — a letter from the school principal to parents was drafted as early as Dec. 13, 2019.
The letter was never sent. Instead, the Public Service Commission, justice department and RCMP “became involved” and “amplified” legal and privacy concerns about sharing the information. While the focus should have been on the obligation to notify Hidden Valley parents about the allegations, the report says the discussion devolved into what could be shared with the public.
As a result, nothing was shared at all.
Had parents been told right away, they could have had the “critical opportunity to talk to their children and provide or seek any necessary supports in a timely manner,” the report says, and it also “likely would have prompted disclosures from additional child victims.”
Communications principles not abided by: report
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 leadership should have input on communications about serious issues, “important decision-making” about Auclair-Bellemare was largely left to “lower-level individuals” in 2019, the report says, with little to no oversight from the deputy minister, minister or cabinet.
The report also found the department did not abide by a number of principles within the communication policy, including being “a responsible public service.”
“Put in the context of the parents, it is reasonable to expect that a responsible public service, especially in the emergent situation of child sexualized abuse, would coordinate its applicable communication resources and inform the parents in an accurate and timely manner,” the report says.
“As a result, the evidence shows that the parents were outraged at the Department’s lack of communication with them. It left them feeling that the Department was not taking the [Auclair-Bellemare] matter seriously 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 on sexual assault in school and staff-to-student violence.
As well, the department paid for “crisis communications plan licensing” and “crisis communication drill” contracts in 2014, though it’s unclear what became of the contracts and whether the crisis communications manual was used.
“All we know is that an alleged sexual assault in the school had been duly reported [in 2019] but, despite having paid for specific and professional guidance… the Department kept silent,” the report says.
Had department staff referred to the manual or communications policy, there may have also been a “more focused discussion” about why it was necessary to tell parents about the situation, the report says.
Department ‘would likely have maintained its silence’
The department’s decision to not communicate “abruptly changed” after CBC News published an article about a lawsuit filed by the 2019 victim, the report says, leading to the RCMP receiving new information about other alleged victims and mounting parental pressure for “vital information.”
The department “found itself unexpectedly having to react to the result” of the article and did an “about-face,” sending parents a letter in August 2021 and holding a Zoom meeting in November where it shared information previously deemed too-legally-risky.
“If it were not for the media story,” the report says, “we are of the view that the Department would likely have maintained its silence about the [Auclair-Bellemare] matter, thus perpetuating the unfairness of depriving the parents from taking any timely action concerning their children and also withholding information that, once released, directly led to two more disclosures of criminal behaviour.”
Parents shouldn’t have had to learn about the Auclair-Bellemare matter through the media, the report says, nor should they have had to wait as long as they did to access counselling and other resources.
While the department met its legal obligation in reporting the matter in 2019 to the RCMP, and family and children’s services, it failed to meet its legal and policy obligations to tell parents, the report says. It notes that at no point was the department prevented from informing parents by either privacy legislation or 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 Safer Schools Action Plan, developed by the education department in response to the Yukon-government-ordered report, adequately addresses and mitigates the issues it identified.
Yukon Education Minister Jeanie McLean was not immediately available for an interview, but said in a press release that the territorial government accepts the report’s findings.
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