Yukon RCMP, education department admit error, apologize for handling of Hidden Valley sexual abuse case

·4 min read
Yukon RCMP Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard sits at a media briefing Sept. 23 about the police and territorial education department's handling of a sexual abuse case at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley Elementary School. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
Yukon RCMP Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard sits at a media briefing Sept. 23 about the police and territorial education department's handling of a sexual abuse case at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley Elementary School. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

The Yukon RCMP and Department of Education are apologizing for how they handled the case of an educational assistant at Hidden Valley Elementary School who sexually abused a student in 2019, with both launching reviews on the situation.

"It is clear to me we should have done better," Yukon RCMP Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard told reporters at a media briefing Thursday morning.

"... I can tell you, I am not pleased, I am not at all happy that I have to sit here today and explain what I consider to be a major, major error."

The briefing came the day after police and government representatives met privately with Hidden Valley parents to discuss the case of William Auclair-Bellemare, a now-former educational assistant who pleaded guilty last year to sexually abusing a student at the school.

Court documents show the abuse came to light after the student told his father that Auclair-Bellemare had been performing "body checks" on him. Auclair-Bellemare was arrested on Nov. 18, 2019 and was later sentenced to six months in jail, followed by two years' probation.

Parents say they were never notified about Auclair-Bellemare's arrest or eventual conviction, and only learned about the situation after the CBC reported on a lawsuit filed in July by the student. Some parents also told the CBC their children were never interviewed by police, despite having been in Auclair-Bellemare's care.

Yukon RCMP previously confirmed it received new complaints about Auclair-Bellemare following the CBC's story. Two additional victims have since been identified, with Auclair-Bellemare now facing a total of seven new charges related to alleged incidents that happened between 2014 and 2018.

'I've never seen anything like this'

Sheppard said at the briefing that investigators in 2019 "did not have specific information" about other possible victims, but "ought to have known," given Auclair-Bellemare's position as an educational assistant, that "he would have had, possibly, the opportunity to victimize other students."

"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," he admitted.

"We did not do that. For that, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of the Yukon RCMP to all of those families impacted... We shoulder the responsibility along with the Department of Education for not having independently followed up in a thorough manner."

Sheppard said he'd asked the commanding officer of the RCMP in British Columbia to "initiate a complete review of this investigation." The review, which is already underway, will be done by the B.C. RCMP's major crimes unit, with Sheppard saying he expected it to be completed in "a matter of weeks."

"Nobody wanted this to happen," he said. "Everyone conducted their affairs in the best interests of the people involved, most notably the children who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, but at the end of the day, notwithstanding what [the] education [department] did or did not do, we have our own responsibilities.

"… My investigators don't need to ask permission from Education to go and make the inquiries that they need to make, and I want to find out why that didn't happen because I've never seen anything like this. This is a very unusual occurrence."

'We are deeply sorry'

Deputy education minister Nicole Morgan, meanwhile, told reporters that her department "fully acknowledges the trust of families at Hidden Valley School was broken."

"We heard clearly from families last night that we have failed them," she said of the private meeting with parents. "For this, we are sorry."

Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC

Morgan said the department regretted not finding a "targeted and discreet way" to inform parents of the criminal proceedings against Auclair-Bellemare, and apologized to families for the delay in getting them both information and supports.

"I want to recognize and we certainly heard last night that this situation has caused confusion, anger and fear about children's safety at school — again, for this, we are deeply sorry, and we are committed to rebuilding your trust."

Morgan said the department was working with the territory's child and youth advocate on public review of policies and procedures, and had also made short-term commitments like getting families "more targeted, proactive support" for how to talk to young children about the situation.

She added that she heard something from a parent at the private meeting that "continues to resonate with me."

"This parent said that while they understand we can't go back in time and things always look different when you're looking back on them, for them, they will make their judgments about how we act from here going forward," Morgan said. "And that is our commitment and that is our intent."

More to come.

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