Yukon government orders independent review on response to sexual abuse at Hidden Valley school

Lawyer Amanda Rogers will look into the "internal and inter-departmental processes" that came after an educational assistant at the school was first accused of sexually abusing a student in his care in November 2019.

Government has hired a lawyer to look at response to educational assistant who abused student in 2019

Hidden Valley Elementary School in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The Yukon government has hired a lawyer to conduct an independent review of its handling of a sexual abuse case at Hidden Valley Elementary School. 

Lawyer Amanda Rogers will look into the "internal and inter-departmental processes" that came after an educational assistant at the school was first accused of sexually abusing a student in his care in November 2019, the government announced in a news release Wednesday. 

William Auclair-Bellemare went on to plead guilty to one count of sexual interference; however, Hidden Valley parents were never informed of the criminal proceedings, and the situation only became widely known after the CBC reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim in July. More alleged victims have since been identified. 

Rogers, whom the release describes as "an arbitrator, mediator and lawyer specializing in workplace conflict resolution," will be undertaking a "broad and comprehensive review of established government policies and procedures around operations, reporting and communications to address serious incidents in Yukon schools." 

Her work will include looking at how the Education, Health and Social Services, and Justice departments "work together to respond to serious incidents in schools and interact with the RCMP," with a report containing facts and recommendations to be submitted to the education minister in 2022. 

"Following a criminal incident in 2019, we recognize that there has been a breakdown in trust between families, Hidden Valley Elementary School and the Government of Yukon," Education Minister Jeanie McLean said in the release. 

"This independent review will shed light on the Yukon government's response in 2019 and provide recommendations for strengthening policies and procedures to better support our families and school communities going forward."

Government now cooperating with child and youth advocate's review

In a separate news release, the government also said that it would work with the Yukon's child and youth advocate, Annette King, as she conducts her own policy review on safety and supports at Hidden Valley. 

McLean had previously told the CBC the Yukon government didn't believe King had the "legal authority" to conduct a review, but, in the release, said her department would now be "cooperating with the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office throughout this review to ensure it is effective." 

The newly-released terms of reference for the advocate's review say King will focus on the responses of both the Education and the Health and Social Services departments to allegations of sexual abuse at Hidden Valley from 2014 to 2021.

The review, launched on July 29, will continue through the fall of 2021, with a final report expected in early 2022 where King will provide advice "on how to promote safety in schools, in particular for students with special needs, and ensure appropriate processes are in place to prevent abuse and respond appropriately when abuse occurs." 

"The willingness of the Department of Education to cooperate with us on this review is an encouraging step forward in what has been a complex and painful affair for these students and their families," King said in the release. "As we work alongside the department, our intention is to keep the focus on the wellbeing of children."

'We can and will do better'

The Yukon government also issued a third news release about Hidden Valley on Wednesday, containing a joint statement from McLean and Justice Minister Tracy McPhee. It, in part, said it acknowledged that not notifying parents of the criminal proceedings against Auclair-Bellemare in 2019 was "a mistake." 

It's the first time McPhee, who was the Yukon's education minister in 2019 and up until the 2021 territorial election, had publicly associated herself with the Yukon government's response to the Hidden Valley situation. 

The CBC previously reported that a session briefing note about the criminal proceedings against Auclair-Bellemare had been prepared for McPhee in March 2020. The CBC also recently obtained new documents through an access-to-information request showing a briefing note dated Nov. 25, 2019, days after the first criminal charges were first laid against Auclair-Bellemare. 

The joint statement said that "steps could have been taken at that time to better inform and support families." 

"We apologize for this and acknowledge the stress being experienced by the Hidden Valley school community," it continues. "We can and will do better as we move forward."