WHITEHORSE — The RCMP and Yukon’s Department of Education acknowledged failures as they apologized for the handling of a sexual assault investigation at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Whitehorse.
“We should have done better," RCMP Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard said during a news conference on Thursday. "We should have been more diligent."
In November 2019, police were told that a student had been sexually assaulted by an education assistant at the school.
While the staff member was quickly removed from the school, other parents were never informed of the incident and there was no attempt made to identify more potential victims.
A followup investigation was launched more than a year later when two other potential victims were identified.
“At the time of the investigation, we did not have specific information that there were possibly other victims involved and the investigation remained focused on the safety and the privacy of the first victim and their family,” said Sheppard.
Investigators should have known, given the accused was a teacher's aide, he said.
"As such, it is clear to me we should have done better."
William Auclair-Bellemare, 34, pleaded guilty to sexual interference and was convicted on Jan. 18, 2021. He spent six months in jail before release on probation.
Auclair-Bellemare was charged Sept. 10 with four sex-related counts, including sexual exploitation of a person with a disability, in relation to two other students at the school.
None of the current allegations have been proven in court.
Sheppard told the news conference that police should have worked more closely with partners at the school to look for other potential victims.
"We did not do that,” Sheppard added.
A review of the investigation has been launched by the E Division Major Crimes Unit in British Columbia, he said.
Sheppard said the number of people involved in the file may have contributed to the confusion.
“I think I’ll be in a better position to comment on where key mistakes are made, and possibly by whom, once the complete review is completed,” he said.
Parents at Hidden Valley Elementary School found out about the allegations in July, over a year after the original charges were laid, when media outlets reported on a civil lawsuit brought forward against the government by a parent of the victim.
On Thursday, deputy minister of education Nicole Morgan acknowledged it was a failure to not communicate directly with parents.
“The Department of Education fully acknowledges the trust of families at Hidden Valley School was broken,” said Morgan.
"For this, we are sorry. We heard a desire for a public review of our policies and procedures.”
Morgan said during the criminal investigation department officials “struggled with the tension between our obligation to protect a student’s privacy and their dignity and that of the families and public’s right to know.”
Her apology came after a closed-door meeting between RCMP, the department and parents at the school on Wednesday. Minister of Education Jeanie McLean was not present at the news conference but did attend the meeting.
Morgan said the department now has a list of “action items” from parents, including a public review of policies across all Yukon schools to prevent similar incidents.
Sheppard said the investigation into the original incident began on Nov. 17, 2019, with a report from child protective services. The student was interviewed the next day and Auclair-Bellemare was removed immediately from the school.
In July, local media outlets reported on a civil lawsuit against Auclair-Bellemare and the school by the parent of the victim, alleging the school failed in its duty to protect children.
Other parents came forward and the subsequent RCMP follow up identified two more alleged victims, resulting in the new charges against the man.
Auclair-Bellemare was released on bail on Sept. 13 with court-ordered conditions restricting his interaction with minors and he is awaiting his next court appearance.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.
Haley Ritchie, Yukon News, The Canadian Press