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Gender + Sexuality

Parents Say Schools Are Mismanaging Child-on-Child Sexual Assault

One family’s story reveals a mismatch between how authorities investigate and how kids process violent trauma.

Katie Hyslop 28 Feb 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth issues for The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This piece contains graphic details of sexual assault involving children.]

By the time the two-week spring break ended on the northern Sunshine Coast in qathet School District 47 in late March 2022, Claire’s youngest child, Bailey, seemed to have turned the corner on their opinion of kindergarten.

The five-year-old had not particularly loved their first year of school, but by the end of break they were keen to go back to class, their mom told The Tyee. (The Tyee has agreed to use pseudonyms and not share the child’s gender and has opted not to name the school to protect the family’s privacy.)

But shortly after classes resumed, Claire, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, noticed a big change in their youngest child.

“They were exhibiting extreme anxiety around going to school. They were crying, waking up at night. It was like they were completely shut down,” Claire said. “I contacted their teacher.”

Despite being potty trained for three years, Bailey began soiling their bed at night and their clothes during the day. Suddenly this once adventurous kid with a “goofy” sense of humour was so afraid to be alone they insisted on following their mom everywhere, including to the bathroom.

It would take three months, a doctor’s visit and some gentle questioning before Bailey let Claire know what had happened: during outdoor recess at school, the kindergartener had been lured off the playground by two older boys, who, once they were out of teachers’ sight, proceeded to restrain and sexually and physically assault the younger child.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” Claire told The Tyee.

By the time the truth had come to light, it was summer break. Claire immediately contacted the RCMP and the school’s outgoing and incoming principals to report the assault.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development was alerted and opened its own investigation into the assault.

The way the school district, the RCMP and the MCFD responded to the assault allegations horrified Claire and her husband. The ministry, for example, insisted Bailey be questioned without their parents present — something Claire and their husband were unwilling to do because Bailey was already struggling with anxiety and being away from their parents, especially Claire.

When Bailey initially disclosed the assault to Claire, they said they wanted to keep it private. Claire and her husband were concerned that placing Bailey into an interview alone with the MCFD to recount the assault would exacerbate the child’s trauma. The parents wanted to be there to provide emotional support to their child if they needed it.

“The initial trauma was the sexual assault by these two very predatory boys. But the ministry, the RCMP and the school district are continuing, through what I have termed ‘bureaucratic malice,’ to perpetuate the trauma,” Claire said.

Unsure if their children would ever be safe in the local school system, and knowing they would likely encounter Bailey’s abusers in the community again, the family made the difficult decision to sell their home and move to a different city.

But Claire remains worried about the safety of the other children in the school. They are also concerned about the two boys who allegedly committed the assault, who were 10 and 11 at the time.

“These are clearly children that need an enormous amount of help and intervention,” Claire said, adding they are concerned the boys may have been abused themselves.

In an interview with The Tyee, School District 47 superintendent Jay Yule said the district did its own investigation into the assault. But without anyone interviewing Bailey, there is only so much the district can do, he said.

“How do you carry on looking into things if you don’t talk to the person involved?” Yule said.

A pattern in BC

Bailey’s case marks at least the third recent case in B.C. where families have alleged that their children have been sexually assaulted at school by fellow students and failed by schools and districts in the aftermath.

In December, the Times Colonist reported on an incident that took place in Sooke School District 62 in 2021, when a Grade 7 girl was sexually assaulted by a group of Grade 8 boys on a school sports field just before morning classes began.

On Jan. 31, “dozens” of students in the district walked out of classes in protest of what they say is a lack of district response to sexual assaults on school property.

Earlier in January, the CBC reported that a mom in Mission was suing her child’s school district after her nine-year-old son was sexually assaulted by five other boys at school.

Like Claire’s family, these families felt their school districts’ investigation process had fallen short.

In Sooke, superintendent Scott Stinson told the Times Colonist last year that without sufficient evidence backing up the victim’s account, there is little that school districts can do.

This was a position qathet superintendent Yule maintained in his interview with The Tyee.

Yule told The Tyee the district had based its investigation on what the parents told them.

Speaking in general terms, Yule said qathet School District 47 follows a violent-incident protocol when a high-risk incident of violence is reported, which includes reporting incidents to the RCMP and MCFD. If appropriate, Child, Youth and Family Services then provides counselling for students impacted. This protocol is shared across school districts in B.C., Yule said.

The school principal does their own investigation as well, Yule said.

“We collect the information. We would then interview any of the students that were involved to get first-hand accounts of what happened, and then we would determine the course of action,” Yule said.

The approach is not any different if the child who is assaulted does not take part in the investigation, he added.

In Claire’s child’s case, Yule said they attempted to identify the children who committed the assault based on identifying information provided.

But Claire said the information the school district has is less than what she shared with the school’s outgoing principal.

An email Claire shared with The Tyee shows that they sent the school’s outgoing principal a possible first name and the age of one of the boys, and a description of the hair colour and facial markings of the other boy. Claire sent this email in late August 2022.

In a statement to The Tyee, a district spokesperson maintained the district was never told the ages of the boys or about the distinctive facial markings. The district said Claire had provided some information about hair colour, but cited a different hair colour from the one in Claire’s email.

Two days after Claire sent the descriptions to the school’s former principal in August 2022, the school sent out an email to parents informing them that on the first full day back on Sept. 7 and for the next two days staff would be arranging students in grades 1 to 7 into “multi-aged groupings” for the entire school day, meaning children aged five to 12 would spend the day in small groupings together under teacher supervision.

Claire interpreted this as a sign that the school was not taking the assault allegations seriously, or seeking remedies to prevent future assaults.

Extreme anxiety and signs of abuse

Claire and her husband discussed removing Bailey from school before classes finished in late June 2022 because of Bailey’s extreme anxiety. But they opted to stick it out in hopes it would get better.

Even after school closed for summer, however, Bailey was still soiling themselves and began complaining about sore genitals. Suspecting a urinary tract infection, Claire took Bailey to the doctor.

“He took a urine sample and he said, ‘Well, there’s no sign of a UTI.’ And then, with my child sitting next to me, he very obliquely asked some questions regarding abuse,” she said. “It did not occur to me that something like that could have happened.”

Claire and her husband had always been careful about who they let around their two children, the oldest of whom was seven at the time. Only a limited number of trusted adults could be around them unsupervised.

After the doctor left the room, Claire told Bailey that if there had been unwanted touching, it was not the child’s fault and it was always safe to tell their parents. That’s when Bailey spoke up.

“They said, ‘Well, Mummy, there were two boys at school. And they touched me down there,’” Claire recalled.

Alarmed by Bailey’s disclosure, Claire and their husband booked sessions with two different counsellors to create a plan for talking to Bailey about the abuse. They also brought Bailey to see a counsellor.

“The way Bailey made the disclosure in the doctor’s office, it didn’t sound as violent as it has turned out to be. We didn’t know at that point that they had been penetrated,” Claire said.

Claire was worried that further discussing the assault with Bailey could interfere with her child’s memory of the assault, so she consulted her own psychologist about best practices. Claire’s psychologist told her that she and her husband were Bailey’s “safe space,” meaning they were the people best suited to talk to Bailey about the assault. The psychologist said the parents should find a time when both they and Bailey were feeling calm and comfortable and had privacy to speak. They didn’t have to worry about biasing Bailey’s experience of the assault with their own understandable concerns, the psychologist told them, because that kind of memory interference occurs only with intent.

Armed with the psychologist’s suggestions on how to open up the conversation, Claire broached the subject again that August one day while she and Bailey were picking berries.

That’s when Bailey told their mother everything: during recess at school the previous April, two older boys, then 10 or 11, had taken the five-year-old off the playground and into a nearby wooded area on school grounds that is out of bounds during playtime, where they sexually and physically assaulted them. Bailey eventually managed to escape and hide in the woods until they felt it was safe to return to school.

Distraught, Claire reported the crime to the local RCMP detachment and provided an official statement that same day.

This was just two weeks before classes were scheduled to resume in September. Claire contacted the school’s principal from the previous school year, as well as the incoming principal, to let them know what had happened.

The principals, Claire and her husband had an in-person meeting about the assault within two days. The former school principal seemed shocked, telling the parents he had never experienced an incident like this in 30-plus years in education.

The former principal “was very apologetic,” Claire said.

The principals informed Claire and their husband that there would be a three-pronged approach to investigating their allegations: the police, the MCFD and the school district would be involved.

The former principal “offered for Bailey to come in and look at some of the photographs of the boys. He seemed engaged,” Claire said, adding he also offered to walk around the school playground with Bailey and anyone else the child wanted there, to talk about what happened.

It was just days after Bailey had revealed the true extent of the assault. They had told their parents they were not ready to discuss the assault with anyone else and wanted it to remain private. Concerned about their child’s mental health, they opted not to take the principal up on his offers quite yet.

This was not the only trauma to hit the family at the end of August. The week before Labour Day they were in Squamish, saying goodbye to the children’s dying great-grandfather, whom they had a close relationship with.

While they were there, an MCFD social worker called Claire to ask her to bring Bailey in for an interview about the assault that coming week. Claire said they couldn’t make it because of the pending death in the family, but the week after would work.

The next day the MCFD worker called again.

“She said that she had talked to her supervisor, and because of the risk to the safety of other children, it was imperative that we brought Bailey in, that week, for an interview,” Claire recalled. “And that they were to be interviewed alone, in a room without their dad or I present. And I said, ‘No.’”

The family then contacted Bailey’s counsellor, who is also a social worker. She advised that if the ministry was investigating them as parents, they needed to co-operate. But if they were not, the MCFD could not compel them to allow Bailey to be interviewed.

Claire called the MCFD back and, after ascertaining they and their husband were not under investigation, said they would bring Bailey in that coming Thursday. Claire told the MCFD that she would not allow them to interview Bailey without a parent present.

The night before the interview was due to take place, Claire had to take Bailey’s brother to the hospital — he’d developed pneumonia. She cancelled the appointment with the MCFD.

Bailey’s mental health continued to decline. “This little child had been violently sexually assaulted, lost their great-grandfather and saw their brother get carted to the hospital in an ambulance,” Claire said. “It was too much.”

Claire told the MCFD Bailey needed time and therapy to process everything they’d been through. If and when their counsellor said it was possible to do the MCFD interview without further traumatizing Bailey, then the family would get back in contact with the MCFD about the interview.

Have the teachers been notified?

Every RCMP, MCFD and school district official Claire spoke to about the assault “took great pains,” she told The Tyee, to tell them that because the boys who allegedly assaulted their child were so young, there would be no criminal charges laid.

In an email to The Tyee, a district spokesperson denied the principals said this.

But in a January phone call with The Tyee, RCMP Const. Chris Bakker confirmed what Claire said she was told, adding that everyone involved in the assault was under 12. Because of the ages of the children, he added, the RCMP concluded there was nothing further they could do. But that would not have prevented a further investigation or action by the MCFD or school district, he added.

During the first week of school in September 2022, Claire met with the new school principal again, letting her know Bailey would not be interviewed by the MCFD at this time. Claire was upset that the district had decided to mix grades on the first day back to school in the wake of the assault that had taken place earlier that year.

The district told The Tyee “mixed-age” or “multi-age” groupings are common during the first week back to school. Last September, the school changed it up by having mixed grades for just one hour “of community building, fun, experience-based games and activities” on the first full day of school. Mixed-age groupings also happen throughout the year on field trips and during land-based learning.

Claire wanted the principal to take her own steps to protect kids at the school. Specifically, she wanted to see increased monitoring happening at recess and lunch.

“I said, ‘Have the teachers been notified that there was a serious issue, that the RCMP were involved?’” Claire said. They also wanted to see counsellors made available for both students and teachers.

The principal told Claire she was monitoring the site on school grounds where the assault took place, during recess and lunch. But teachers, who according to Claire had not been told about the sexual assault, were still using the area when conducting lessons outside.

Claire asked the principal what other steps were taken to protect students, and whether they would augment the school curriculum to hold lessons about bodily autonomy and appropriate touch earlier in the school year than the curriculum called for.

By this time, Claire had pulled her two children from school, opting to stop working and home-school them to keep them safe. Because of this, she said, the principal told her she could not share any more information with her about actions the school was taking.

“I never heard from her again. Ever.”

Claire did speak to the former school principal one more time, however. Over the phone, Claire said, she outlined what changes she would like to see the current school principal make, including notifying all the teachers of the assault, keeping an eye out for kids showing similar personality changes to Bailey’s, and sending any kids who did show these changes to talk to school administrators.

But the former principal allegedly told Claire none of these steps were possible.

“He basically told me that it would be unfair to the other students to have those conversations. That there was nothing they could do to adjust the curriculum,” Claire said. “That there was nothing they could do if our child was not willing to participate with the ministry. That this was just how things went.”

Claire’s final contact with the district was an email she sent to the former principal on Sept. 16, 2022, providing her husband’s contact information and requesting that any further communications go through him. The family never heard from the district again.

In an interview, qathet superintendent Yule contradicted what the principal told Claire. He said all the teachers at the school were informed of the assault and that the school could have moved lessons about inappropriate touch and bodily autonomy to earlier in the school year.

“I would be surprised if the principal said that’s impossible,” Yule told The Tyee.

Via email, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education and Child Care confirmed that teachers have the freedom to decide when in the school year to teach parts of the curriculum.

But Claire told The Tyee that one of the last things she and her husband did before moving away in the summer of 2023 was tell two teachers at the school about the assault. She said both told her that they hadn’t yet been informed.

A district spokesperson told The Tyee via email that the former principal denies telling Claire the changes she requested would not be possible, in part because the principal was now working at another school and the changes wouldn’t have been within his power either way.

The spokesperson added the district made “several” offers to the family to make Bailey comfortable during the investigation process, including having the child look at photos of other students, bringing a support person with them to speak to whoever at the school the child was comfortable with and doing a walk-around of the playground area during recess to “observe others,” among other suggestions.

Within a week of Claire’s contact with the school’s principal in September, MCFD team lead Jaclyn Miller contacted Bailey’s dad. Miller was at the time also a sitting School District 47 trustee and was running for re-election.

Claire said Miller told him that Bailey must be interviewed, and interviewed alone. When he said that wasn’t happening, the family said, Miller ceded some ground.

“She said if you do come in, you cannot speak to the child, you cannot have any physical contact, you have to sit out of their line of sight,” Claire said, adding Miller told her husband the MCFD did not want Bailey’s parents to influence their responses.

“He said, ‘If my child, in this circumstance, needs support from me or my wife, we are not going to withhold that.’”

The family offered to pay for a therapist of their choosing to attend the MCFD interview with Bailey for support, but they said the MCFD declined.

Claire told The Tyee they see Miller’s position of power with both the MCFD and the school district as a conflict of interest.

Yule noted district decisions on how to respond to a sexual assault of a student are operational, and therefore outside of the school board’s purview.

Miller confirmed this in an emailed statement to The Tyee.

“I had no role, discussions, or direction on this matter as I was never advised as a trustee that such an incident occurred,” she wrote.

After their discussions with Miller, Bailey’s parents agreed engaging with the ministry any further did not feel safe for their child. If, after therapy and time to heal, it felt like the right choice to re-engage, they would.

“We heard nothing from anybody after that. Not the ministry, not the school district, nothing,” said Claire, adding further voice mails she left for the RCMP in September 2022 and October 2023 went unanswered. In the 2023 message, Claire said, she disclosed the names of the boys Bailey identified as the attackers.

On Oct. 31, 2022, a letter arrived from the MCFD stating they were closing the case because of a lack of information, adding the district and RCMP were also “unable to follow up with the allegation” for this reason.

However, should the family wish to do the interview in the future, the letter told the family, “please do not hesitate” to get in touch with the MCFD again.

A district spokesperson told The Tyee that they do not close unresolved investigations. They said the district took the investigation as far as they could in hopes the family would offer more information at a later date.

The school district’s Yule told The Tyee it was “extremely rare” for a family to not allow the MCFD and the district to interview child victims of assault. “Whether it’s us, or through MCFD or a third party that they’re really comfortable with, or with the parent being in the room, yeah, it’s very rare that we don’t get that opportunity,” Yule said. “Especially in a very serious allegation.”

To Claire, the MCFD’s letter read like the ministry was blaming their family for not letting them interview Bailey.

“We’ve had to fight for every scrap of dignity that we can maintain throughout this entire process,” said Claire.

Claire and their husband are middle-class and highly educated, Claire said. They were equipped to navigate the system — and to home-school and seek out private therapy, though they depleted their savings and took on some debt.

“I cannot fathom what it would be like for people in different circumstances,” she added. “We did everything you’re ‘supposed’ to do.”

A mismatch between policy and how kids process and disclose assaults

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Education and Child Care told The Tyee that school staff in every district receive training on how to respond to allegations or instances of child abuse.

This training comes from the “The B.C. Handbook for Action on Child Abuse and Neglect: For Service Providers,” which “supports an integrated, collaborative response to child abuse, and includes important protocols and topics for educators like how to recognize child abuse and sexual exploitation amongst minors, and how to respond,” the spokesperson wrote.

While the MCFD is responsible for responding to all instances of child abuse in the province, the Education Ministry spokesperson said all school districts are also required to have “safe school co-ordinators” whose job includes responding to violent incidents in schools.

School district staff can also reach out to the ministry’s safety and wellness team, as well as the MCFD, for support.

The MCFD declined to make then MCFD minister Mitzi Dean available for an interview. But in an emailed statement sent to The Tyee, a spokesperson said Powell River has a tripartite agreement among the school district, the RCMP and the ministry to investigate sexual assaults of kids that happen at schools.

“Generally, school principals or their designates will lead the investigation in a school setting unless there is a criminal investigation,” the spokesperson said, adding they could not comment on this specific case for privacy reasons.

“When an MCFD worker interviews a child,” the spokesperson added, “policy suggests this be done in private so the child can speak candidly without concern about a family member’s opinion or reaction.

“If a child requires or requests the presence of a support person in the interview with the MCFD worker, that would be accommodated.”

But a doctor familiar with Bailey’s case told The Tyee that there is a mismatch between how abuse often surfaces for children and how it is investigated and handled by authorities.

As a general practitioner who has covered everything from obstetrics to family medicine to anesthesia in a nearly 50-year career, Dr. Peter Boronowski recognizes the signs of abuse in children. The incontinence and school-related anxiety issues Bailey experienced fit the definition.

“Sexual abuse in children is historical,” Boronowski told The Tyee. “It’s often eight or nine months afterwards that the child brings up the issue.” Because of this, Boronowski said, there will rarely be direct physical evidence of the abuse available at the time of disclosure.

Claire visited Boronowski three times in November and December 2022 to discuss how best to support her struggling child. They also spoke several times on the phone during that period.

Although he did not meet or examine Bailey himself, Boronowski did send a letter to the ministry reporting the assault in late December 2022, communicating that the children who assaulted Bailey had been “grooming” the child through attention and compliments prior to the assault.

If not properly treated, sexual assault of children has “terrible long-term effects” on a person’s ability to form relationships, their sexuality and their sense of self, Boronowski said.

He also told The Tyee that he believes the outcome to this case would have been different if the ministry and police had taken Bailey’s trauma into account by arranging for someone with expertise and a lot of experience working with child sexual assault victims to interview Bailey.

Clinical registered social worker Wanda Polzin Holman told The Tyee that based on the description of the assault and the kids who did it, she is concerned there may have been or will be other victims.

“They learned this behaviour; they’ve seen this behaviour somewhere. It’s not a normal developmental behaviour to want to be sexually explicit with someone in the way that is described — that doesn’t happen until our teenage years when some adolescents become more exploratory,” said Polzin Holman, who is also the clinical director for the Be Brave Ranch, an Alberta-based residential therapeutic program for child and adolescent victims of sexual abuse.

There are no statistics on the rate of child-on-child sexual assault, specifically. But overall, Polzin Holman said, research has shown one in three to four girls under 18, and one in six boys under 18, are sexually assaulted.

And that’s just based on people who come forward; the vast majority of people victimized by sexual assault do not report it to police.

Which is why, Polzin Holman said, the most important thing schools, parents and the community as a whole can do is talk openly about such assaults and how to prevent them.

“It’s about educating children and teens and giving them adequate language to communicate what they may be exposed to. Being educated ourselves around some of the signs and symptoms,” she said, adding parents should be having age-appropriate conversations with their kids from a young age about how to say no and making decisions about their own bodies, using anatomically correct language.

Polzin Holman stressed that it’s important to discuss with kids the importance of not keeping secrets, or being asked to keep secrets, as secrets can be part of the “grooming” process abusers use to manipulate young people into believing they are responsible for the abuse and/or somehow initiated it. “There’s surprises, like at birthday parties, but we know that surprises are different from secrets, because surprises will eventually be told,” she said.

Polzin Holman also stressed that the pressure to stay silent about assaults often has negative consequences.

“There’s been so many situations that we have come across where parents have known something about another child in the community or another family member, and they have not spoken up about an abuser for a variety of reasons, only for the abuser to victimize more young people,” Polzin Holman said.

Caregivers may also avoid the topic of sexual assault of kids, in general, within their own family or school. Children who are being groomed often feel that something isn’t right but may not have the vocabulary to express it, she added.

It’s important to “open up the conversation” so it isn’t seen as “inappropriate” to discuss sexual assault, Polzin Holman said.

Claire, who now lives in another part of B.C., said the assault and the response they got from educators, police and the ministry have changed the way they and their husband parent. Conversations with their kids about bodily autonomy, unsafe touch and consent are happening with greater urgency than before.

“I want this news article published because I really do believe that it is in the best interests of public safety for other children that people are aware of this,” Claire said, adding that by not disclosing to other parents that an assault happened on school grounds, the district is preventing them from asking their kids the right questions.

“And parents need to know what questions to ask their kids.”

Claire hopes going public will also help create change in how schools respond to child-on-child sexual assault.

As Claire and her family have navigated the investigations and speaking to media, Claire has also been picturing the effects the assault will have on Bailey in the future.

“Our child is going to have feelings about this when they’re 16, and when they’re 26, and 36. And we’re going to have to look them in the eye and say, ‘Regardless of what everybody else did or didn’t do, this matters,’” Claire said.

“‘What happened matters, and it was not OK.’”  [Tyee]

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