'Like a caged animal': Parents allege kids isolated, restrained at Whitehorse school
Parents say children in emotional distress were locked alone in a room, put in holds as young as kindergarten
WARNING: This story contains difficult subject matter dealing with the restraint and isolation of children.
Meghan Woods said she heard her son's screams as soon as she opened the school doors.
It was early 2020 and the Whitehorse mother had left work after another call from Jack Hulland Elementary School letting her know her son was upset. She remembers being frustrated — it wasn't the first time she had to pick him up that year. But she said the hair on the back of her neck stood up when she walked into the building.
The principal guided Woods to a locked room nearby: the "study hall."
"I kind of busted in the door," Woods recalled. "And [her son] was there, sitting at the end of the room and he was crying, and he was under a desk, and it wasn't good."
She said she swore at the principal — "Would you treat your own kids this way?" — and left with her son, who was still crying but visibly relieved.
It wasn't until this year that Woods learned that what she walked in on wasn't unusual.
Yukon's Department of Education forbids isolating students, and holds or restraints — where adults restrict a child's movement — are only to be used when there's an imminent safety threat.
However, Whitehorse RCMP announced in November 2021 that, along with the government's Family and Children's Services branch, they were investigating allegations about long-standing use of holds and isolation at Jack Hulland.
The education department ordered an internal review shortly after.
A summary of interim findings released by the department in May confirmed that prior to 2020, staff "routinely" used seclusion and holds for issues of "non-compliance" — such as when a child refused to pull down the hood of their sweater.
The Yukon Child and Youth Advocate's office, meanwhile, launched a systematic review into how the government is responding to the situation and supporting any impacted children.
The investigations and reviews are ongoing, with no charges laid to date and few public updates.
However, CBC News spent months speaking to parents like Woods, who painted a troubling picture of the treatment their children allegedly experienced at Jack Hulland from the mid-2010s until 2020.
In separate interviews, three parents claimed holds — including staff members dragging a student by the arms — were used on children as young as four or five. They also alleged that children who had tantrums or emotional outbursts were locked alone, sometimes for hours, in the study hall.
The parents said they only learned the extent of what their children were allegedly subjected to when they were interviewed by the RCMP earlier this year.
The CBC made multiple requests to interview Yukon's education minister or another education spokesperson, and later asked the department to reply to a detailed list of allegations.
Spokesperson Clarissa Wall provided an email statement instead, declining to comment on "details."
"These matters are of the most serious nature and our priority in all of this work is to support students, families and staff," the statement reads in part.
RCMP urges new witnesses to come forward
Yukon RCMP also declined an interview request, but issued a news release in October, urging new witnesses, including parents and staff, to come forward.
Amy — whose real name CBC has agreed not to use — transferred her son to Jack Hulland in Grade 2 because she'd heard it was an "excellent environment for kids who needed a little bit of extra help." Her son sometimes struggles articulating his thoughts and has since been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While he initially seemed to be doing well, Amy said something seemed off when she picked him up from school one day. After their bedtime stories that night, he told her he was regularly being locked up, "like a caged animal."
"I thought that it [was] an imagination thing — like, he must be grossly overstating what's happening," she said.
Nonetheless, Amy went to the principal's office the next day, where she said she was given the impression her son was being put in a safe space during meltdowns, with a staff member there to help him.
After that first confession, her son never mentioned being locked up again. But Amy said she soon started getting calls about him trying to run away from school.
She was baffled — and worried.
"I treated him as though there was something wrong with him," she said. "I was taking him to get his eyes checked. I was taking him to a pediatrician, because [the school was] wondering if he's getting enough sleep."
Meghan Woods's son, who also has ADHD, started at Jack Hulland in kindergarten. She said he struggled a bit academically but didn't appear to be having major issues. But she said he would "regress" emotionally at the start of every school year — and things went "off the rails" in Grade 5.
That's when the calls started, sometimes from school staff reporting emotional outbursts, sometimes from her son asking to be picked up. He also began faking ailments in a bid to stay home.
While she believes bullying played a role, Woods said she now believes it wasn't the only factor in the change.
Suzanne Lalonde worked at Jack Hulland from 2003 to 2018, primarily as the school counsellor, with stints as a teacher. She said holds and seclusion weren't common when she started, but things started to change when a new principal took over a few years later.
That's when a drive to get back to a "Jack Hulland way" started, according to Lalonde, in which "kids walk down the hall in a straight line and kids sit at their desks" and interruptions weren't tolerated.
Holds, she said, gradually became a way to discipline children, and while she and some staff opted for a hands-off approach — taking children for walks to calm them down, for example — others didn't.
Cubicles 'quickly became used to isolate children,' former counsellor alleges
Things accelerated around 2008, when four cubicles were built in the study hall. Each cubicle had a door with a large window and a desk and chair inside. They were quiet places for children to get work done, Lalonde said, but they "quickly became used to isolate children."
The cubicle doors didn't lock and sometimes students inside would become "so anxious" they would try to escape, Lalonde said. To prevent that, she alleged a teacher would place a chair against the door and sit on it with their back to the student.
"Some kids would be in there just screaming and throwing themselves against the door and [yelling], 'Let me out, let me out.'"
The school went through periods where staff would restrain at least one child a day, Lalonde said, and children would be placed in the cubicles "certainly more than once a day." Students would also be locked alone in the study hall, with staff monitoring them via a security camera that provided a live feed to the school office.
Lalonde said she disagreed with what was happening — she believed restraints and seclusion would only further harm children and cause them to act out more. But she worried about losing her job, so she didn't push the issue.
"I tried so hard to protect those children in many ways, but I didn't go far enough," she said. "I was scared."
Donna Miller-Fry began working as a superintendent for the Yukon education department in January 2021.
In an interview, she said she soon "became aware of a historical practice" related to the use of holds and seclusion at Jack Hulland and reported the information to police and family and children's services.
"There's nothing unusual about what I did," she said, adding there were "a lot of really good teachers" at Jack Hulland who'd been "reporting this and trying to get eyes on it for a long time."
The CBC has not been able to independently confirm that Miller-Fry filed a complaint, or that it caused the RCMP to launch its investigation.
An experienced superintendent, Miller-Fry said she believes restraints have their place and has witnessed them used "properly… as a last resort in a crisis." But she also said "any intervention" with a child needs to be carefully documented and followed up on.
The parents who spoke to the CBC said they were rarely, if ever, informed their children were placed in holds or seclusion, and any documentation they saw didn't correlate with the number of alleged incidents their children described in their RCMP interviews.
Miller-Fry was fired in April; neither she nor the education department would comment on why. She said she's spent months trying to get people to pay attention to the restraint and seclusion allegations, so impacted children can get help.
"Most people I talk to think I'm making it up," she said. "Most people I talk to think that can't possibly be true."
'He knew that they were coming to ... lock him up'
Amy and Woods said things clicked for them when their sons were interviewed as part of the RCMP's investigation.
Amy said her son described being regularly locked in the study hall, where he would try to climb the cubicle walls or scratch at them with a fork. He also described getting frustrated in class — crumpling his paper or throwing his scissors to the floor — and then immediately after hearing staff speak on walkie-talkies, followed by the sound of high-heel shoes clicking down the hallway.
"He knew that they were coming to get him to lock him up," Amy said.
Woods, meanwhile, said the RCMP suggested her son was put in holds starting in kindergarten when he didn't follow instructions, and that incident reports in her son's file stopped in Grade 3. There was no documentation of the bullying he faced or when he was put into holds or the study hall after that, including the time she heard him screaming.
"I [wish I] knew more about what was happening because … I would have screamed to the mountaintops about what was going on," Woods said.
Amy said she asked her son why he never told her what was happening. He said he didn't want to get in trouble, but also that he didn't think she could protect him.
Hearing that felt "horrible," she said. "It's like I fed him to the wolves."
The use of holds at Jack Hulland was largely discontinued in 2020, according to the education department's internal review, and the study hall cubicles were disassembled in June 2021.
'Division among the staff'
The interim findings of the education department's review said the changes "resulted in division among the staff," and some parents also began raising concerns about increased incidents at Jack Hulland.
One parent who spoke to CBC on the condition her name not be published said her children regularly witnessed other students behaving violently or disruptively, such as repeatedly pulling fire alarms.
The parent said she supported Jack Hulland staff, and that they needed to have the resources and tools — including holds — to deal with difficult situations, something the head of the Yukon educators' union also previously told the CBC. However, this parent wasn't aware of how holds and seclusion were allegedly used against some children; when the CBC shared some details with her, she said she was troubled by the allegations.
Amy and Woods said their sons were never violent, and were allegedly put in holds and seclusion when what they really needed was time to calm down and talk out their feelings.
A new principal took over Jack Hulland in 2021; all the parents the CBC spoke to said they were happy with the approach he was taking to get the situation under control, and that the school is currently in a good place.
Even so, Amy and Woods transferred their sons to different schools. Woods said she did so on the advice of the new principal, who noticed her son was triggered by sounds like high-heeled shoes in the hallway and classroom doors being closed.
Another mother said she had to leave the territory entirely to get help.
Linda, whose real name the CBC agreed not to publish, said her son has ADHD and a mild intellectual disability. He struggles both at home and at school, but she has never resorted to a "more disciplined, aggressive style of parenting."
Linda said the situation at school became "really unmanageable" in Grade 1 — her son was fine at home but "volatile" at school.
She recalled dropping him off at school in Grade 1 on a day he really didn't want to go.
"[Some staff] figured that they would help me by taking him from me at the door and putting him in a restraint and dragging him down the hallway," she said. "I went to my car and I cried. And then I had to go to work."
Linda said her son continued to spiral, veering into self-harm even as she brought him to a psychiatrist and "begged" the school for help. As a single mother, she said she couldn't always afford to step away from her job, even when she suspected things weren't right.
The last straw, Linda said, was when she got a call from the school threatening to have her son picked up by family and children's services.
Soon after, they left the Yukon.
Children doing better now, mothers say
Linda and Amy recently put their names on a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of all children subjected to holds and seclusion at Jack Hulland between 2002 and 2022.
The class action has not been certified, and the allegations in the statement of claim have yet to be tested at trial.
Amy said she was "terrified" to come forward, but felt a lawsuit was the only way to force people to pay attention to what allegedly happened to her son and children like him.
"This can never happen again," she said.
All three mothers said their children are doing better after leaving Jack Hulland — no calls home, and the boys are happy and want to go to school again. But there is still a long road ahead.
Linda said she recently received a report from her son's new school that drove home the impact of his years at Jack Hulland. Her son was in crisis, and according to the report, he told staff, "I need you to restrain me so that I can calm down."
More than anything, Amy said she wants to see accountability and consequences for anyone involved in what allegedly happened at Jack Hulland.
"There are people within the school and within the department who believe that what went on wasn't wrong," she said. "Those people should not be working with children in education."
Woods, who isn't involved in the class action, said she also wants to see a shake-up of the Yukon education department — she doesn't believe things can really change if the personnel stays the same.
"The deputy minister and the minister of education… They need to lose their jobs," she said. "And somebody who actually cares about the well-being of children should be in these positions."
"You're talking to a first-generation residential school survivor here," she said. "Treating children this way has been normalized by the system, and it's not OK."
Documentary produced by Julia Pagel and Jackie Hong