North·In Depth

Parents concerned, frustrated they weren't notified of sexual abuse at a Whitehorse elementary school

Parents with children at Hidden Valley Elementary School say they're concerned that the Yukon Department of Education never notified them about an educational assistant who was convicted of sexually abusing a student, or provided any additional information or supports.

'I just physically kind of wanted to throw up,' one parent said about how she felt learning the news

Hidden Valley School in Whitehorse. A group of approximately 40 people called the 'Concerned Parents of Hidden Valley School,' sent a letter on July 29 to education minister Jeanie McLean outlining 'serious concerns about the lack of action from the Department of Education to protect our children from previous and future harm.' (Google)

Parents with children at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley Elementary School say they're concerned officials did not notify them about an educational assistant who sexually abused a student — or provide any supports or information since the news became public. 

Jennifer Kiess, who has a daughter at Hidden Valley, said in an interview Aug. 4 that she initially felt confused when she learned of the abuse via the CBC News last month

However, that confusion turned into a "whole mind and body reaction" as "shock" and "revulsion" set in. 

"I just physically kind of wanted to throw up," she said. 

As the CBC first reported in July, an educational assistant pleaded guilty in 2020 to one count of sexual interference for inappropriately touching a child at Hidden Valley in 2019. However, the situation only recently came to light after the child, via a parent, filed a lawsuit over the abuse. 

The child's name is protected by a publication ban. The CBC is not naming the parent or educational assistant to avoid identifying the child. 

'They're turning their backs on us'

Keiss said she and every other parent she's spoken to had never heard about the criminal case. She's now part of a group of approximately 40 people called the "Concerned Parents of Hidden Valley School," which sent a letter on July 29 to Education Minister Jeanie McLean outlining "serious concerns about the lack of action from the Department of Education to protect our children from previous and future harm."

"We are extremely disappointed that the Department of Education did not inform parents of this incident 18 months ago, when it was first reported, so that we could have started the difficult discussions with our children then to see if any of them had been victimized," the letter reads in part.

"This is unacceptable behaviour from a group of individuals who are supposed to be protecting our children and have their best interests at heart."

Kiess said the minister, as of Aug. 4, hadn't responded to the letter or other emails and calls from parents — nor have officials offered parents and children access to counselling or other resources.

"We need help, please," Kiess said. "This is a situation no family should have to endure, but we are, and we all feel like we're drowning. There's a safety boat nearby —  the Department of Education —  and they're choosing to look away... They're turning their backs on us."

'We're asking for you to at least acknowledge that this happened'

Another parent, who the CBC has agreed to not name due to her fears of professional repercussions, described the lack of communication from the department as "appalling." 

"The Department of Education needs to accept some accountability… They're basically closing the door and saying, 'We're just going to pretend this never happened and you'll all go away,'" she said. 

Like Kiess, the parent said she believed the department should have notified parents about the situation, at the latest, when the educational assistant pleaded guilty to a criminal charge and then immediately deployed social workers and mental health professionals to the school. 

That the department hasn't responded to requests to have those resources put in place now, she said, was only compounding her frustration.

"Provide us with the supports and tools that we need to support our children moving forward into this school year — that's all we're asking for," she said. 

"We're asking for you to at least acknowledge that this happened, and that we as parents have the right to be able to have information about our children's safety." 

Matter 'before the courts,' officials incorrectly claim

Department of Education spokesperson Erin MacDonald did not respond to questions about whether the department notified parents about the criminal case against the educational assistant. 

She also would not respond to questions about when the assistant was removed from the school or if any supports will be put in place for students and parents, incorrectly claiming the matter was "before the courts." 

The CBC also attempted to ask Education Minister Jeanie McLean during a COVID-19 press conference on Aug. 4 if she would be responding to the letters of concern, and if the department would cooperate with a systemic review launched by Yukon's child and youth advocate into safety and supports at Hidden Valley. 

A communications director ended the press conference before the CBC could finish asking its questions. 

Another reporter earlier in the press conference had also asked McLean about parents' concerns, to which, like MacDonald, she claimed she could not discuss because the issue was "before the courts." 

While the lawsuit filed by the student's father is still in the early stages of the civil court process, the concerns being raised by parents about the lack of notification about the abuse and access to supports are not part of the lawsuit nor any other court process. 

'Additional reports brought forward,' police say

Parents aren't the only ones looking for answers from the government. 

Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers, whose riding includes Hidden Valley, told the CBC he's also penned a letter to McLean after hearing from a number of concerned constituents. 

"People trust that their kids will be safe at school and they also expect that if that safety is breached, [the] government will immediately inform them of what happened, and this lack of communication has really breached that trust," he said. 

The Yukon's child and youth advocate is also seeking a meeting with McLean and department officials as part of her systemic review. 

"Our intention for this review is not to catch somebody that did something wrong or blame anybody," Annette King said in an Aug. 3 interview. 

"It's to take charge and show that the professionals can do this to support the families. We really just want the children to feel safe to go to school and in order to do that the families need to feel supported."

King said she expected her review to be completed in December or January. 

The Yukon RCMP is now also involved. In an email, a spokesperson wrote "that there have been additional reports brought forward" but that the force would not be providing any other information "to protect the integrity of the investigation and privacy of potential victims involved." 

Good memories 'completely blown to smithereens'

In the meantime, Kiess and the other parent say they're trying to prepare their children — and themselves — for the start of a new school year. 

However, it hasn't been easy.

"Hidden Valley —  I don't think there's any parents that had anything bad to say about that school," she said. "The teachers are amazing and it's got its own little community atmosphere… and that's just all been completely blown to smithereens. 

"Now, instead of thinking and remembering those memories, all I'm thinking about is, is my child going to be safe when I send my child back to school? And that's just not right."