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Playground attack: Response to sexual assault on school field reveals gaps in system

The parents of a Grade 7 student who was sexually assaulted by a group of Grade 8 boys on a school playing field say the school district was woefully ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

Warning: This story contains details of a sexual assault.

On the morning of Nov. 4, 2021, 12-year-old Jade said goodbye to her mother and got out of the car at her middle school on the West Shore.

As the petite Grade 7 student — Jade is not her real name — started across the playing field, she instinctively moved around the baseball diamond to make way for an approaching group of Grade 8 boys.

She imagined the five boys, some of whom were nearly twice her size, were headed to the nearby bakery.

But it was soon apparent they were headed for her.

She recalls the boys making a circle around her. One was ­holding her shoulders, with another two on each of her arms, and a fourth in front.

Her pants were partially pulled down and she felt ­something penetrate her, but with no prior sexual ­experience, she wasn’t sure what was ­happening.

The large boy holding her shoulders said: “Dude, what are you doing,” and got a crude reply from the main aggressor.

“I was crying. I was in pain,” said Jade. “I didn’t say ‘stop’ or anything. I was crying. I was in shock, not knowing what was going on.”

The boys then headed off for the start of school, as did Jade.

She was reprimanded for being late to class.

In the days that followed, Jade’s physical appearance and mental health deteriorated.

Described by her parents as a free-spirited athlete — light and silly and engaged — she turned dark, resentful, angry and ­fearful, and dyed her hair black.

Initially, her parents accepted their daughter’s explanations for her changed mood: She had seen her great-grandmother have a serious fall, her great-­grandfather had died, her cat had died. There was also puberty.

“It made sense at the time,” her mother said. “But she had never had anxiety before, never had panic attacks, and all of a sudden she couldn’t walk down the hallway and I was getting calls from her school that she’s not breathing, she’s not doing well.”

Jade felt shame about what happened, and guilt that she didn’t fight back the way she imagined she would. She was also angry.

“No one could know what ­happened because it was ­disgusting and I couldn’t believe I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “I thought I should have stopped it, I shouldn’t have let it happen. I should have screamed, so I thought it was my fault.”

She didn’t know that freezing or delaying reporting are ­common trauma responses.

At school, some of her alleged abusers taunted her and called her names, including “slut.”

Jade was scared that if she were caught alone in a stairwell or bathroom she could be attacked again. School playing fields triggered fear. She felt as though her childhood had ended.

“I couldn’t have fun. I couldn’t go jump on the trampoline, go to the park and just jump off the swings to try to land far away.”

One hospital physician told Jade’s mother that her ­daughter’s manifestations were “the truest form of a panic attack as he’d ever seen” and that there had to be a story behind them.

It wasn’t until six months later, during a mother-daughter movie night, that she finally revealed the secret that was consuming her.

She started by asking her mother a question: Have you ever experienced a sexual assault? Her mother had, in Ontario, and her abuser was convicted. It’s why she moved to B.C.

In response, Jade wrote out what had happened to her. Her mother read it and wept, as her father would when he heard about it hours later.

Her father immediately called the RCMP, who met the ­family at the school, where Jade recounted what had happened to her.

“I never saw my dad cry like that,” said Jade. “I just saw his eyes and I could see he felt that he failed to protect me.”

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This past spring, middle and secondary principals and vice-principals in the Sooke School District received training on how to respond when an allegation comes in, how to communicate, and next steps. Guidance came in part from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The counsellor and principal appeared shaken, but Jade’s ­parents say it soon became apparent they were in over their heads.

“To quote the principal: ‘This is out of my swim lane,’ ” said her father. A civil servant of 18 years, he believed there were rigorous systems and ­policies in place at all levels of the ­education system, police and government. That notion would soon crumble.

“The school didn’t know what to do,” he said. “They didn’t have a process in place for when someone comes forward with something like this.”

The RCMP officer ­suggested the family head to the detach­ment for Jade to make a formal statement.

Initially uncomfortable disclosing her story to a male police officer, Jade only revealed the fact the boys had touched her breasts and behind.

“I didn’t really know what sexual assault and rape was before,” said Jade. “I only started knowing that after it ­happened. I didn’t know what people or the world was capable of.”

Asked if her name could be used to pursue charges, Jade ­initially declined.

The family maintains if the police had gathered the right people to lead a ­trauma-informed interview, including a female youth ­outreach RCMP officer, a victim services worker and a youth ­outreach counsellor — as ­happened months later — they could have got the full story and permission to use her name.

Instead, as the formal ­interview ended, the West Shore RCMP officer suggested that the next time Jade saw her ­attackers, “she should just look right through them,” said her mother.

“His words were ­something to the effect of ‘stand tall, give them the thousand-yard stare,’ ” said her father. “He basically said ‘so they touched your boobs and your butt’ … This is a police officer saying this to a 12-year-old girl that’s just been sexually assaulted.”

Her father said he was speechless and unable to ­challenge an officer whom he knew through youth sports and to whom he felt beholden to ­pursue his daughter’s case.

Jade’s mother recalled she said: “This interview is over,” got up with her family and left.

“Nobody wanted to touch it,” said Jade’s mother. “[The RCMP officer] shut her down before she even started. She was only 20 words into a story that took her six months to tell her own parents.”

While West Shore RCMP spokesperson Nancy Saggar said there are discrepancies between the family and officer’s accounts of what was said post-interview by the officer, the department is “committed to ensuring a trauma-informed approach is used to prevent any future ­miscommunication.”

Staff Sgt. Kris Clark, senior media relations officer for B.C. RCMP, said generally speaking, “there is no script for using a trauma-informed approach, as it’s much more human than that, and every situation is different.

“It is about recognizing and acknowledging the different types of trauma, the signs and symptoms of trauma, and the impacts our words and actions can have on a victim/survivor of trauma.”

Because of Jade’s initial apprehension about using her name, the case temporarily reverted to the principal. Jade was asked to find the names of the other boys involved and to seek witnesses, her parents said.

‘Insufficient evidence’

The principal interviewed the main aggressor and cast a wide net to interview the other ­suspects, said her parents.

This, the parents said, ­unintentionally foiled any police investigation that followed.

“Of course we assumed they knew how to do this properly, and that they were going to investigate this properly,” Jade’s mother said of school and police officials. “As parents, we were handing over the most precious thing in our life to other human beings to take care of her and it was like the floor was taken out from underneath us.”

The case presented undeniable challenges.

Six months after the attack, there was no fresh DNA ­evidence, video footage had likely expired, there were no confessions and no witnesses had come forward.

The school principal ­“concluded that no action would be taken against the offending boy due to insufficient evidence,” said Jade’s father.

The school district says it acts within the scope of the School Act, the Youth Criminal ­Justice Act and the Criminal Code and its investigations “must not impede or interfere with criminal investigations and at the same time, must uphold our legal duty to protect the privacy of any minors involved in allegations or investigations.”

“These kids just get put back in the school system, so they basically get taught that ­whatever they do, as long as their parents have their back, they’re fine,” said Jade’s mother.

Feeling their daughter was unsafe, they moved her to another middle school. Police said they would put a no-contact order in place for the alleged main aggressor.

Jade’s parents brought the matter to the school board, where they met with Sooke School District superintendent Scott Stinson, district ­principal of safe and healthy schools Vanessa White, as well as youth outreach RCMP officer Meighan de Pass and youth outreach counsellor Julia Leggett.

That meeting confirmed for Jade’s parents that school staff and the school board were not equipped to deal with sexual ­violence between students on or off school grounds.

Jade’s father asked to see the school’s policies and ­procedures for dealing with students ­reporting sexual assaults on school grounds and concluded there was no “proper system in place” to deal with it.

Six months after Jade gave police her statement, the officer on the case went on medical leave, after conducting seven interviews with ­potential ­witnesses, police told the ­family in an email. Then nothing ­happened for months. A new officer said he would review the files.

Meanwhile, Jade continued to deteriorate, acting out in her new school. Her panic attacks increased and she temporarily developed an eating disorder.

She finished Grade 8 at home, and didn’t attend either her ­year-end trip or graduation.

Jade’s father said his ­family has been approved for tens of thousands of dollars in ­counselling from the province to date, which Jade is ­benefiting from, especially recently, but that won’t help other girls unless district-wide policies and procedures are in place to ensure sexual-violence victims and their cases are handled properly.

“I really believe in ­community and I believe that people try to show up as ­teachers and police officers as best as they can,” added her mother, “but they’re not doing enough to protect our kids is the bottom line.”

Closing school district ‘training gaps’

Stinson, the Sooke School ­District superintendent, said more allegations of sexual assault are coming forward now than when he began teaching decades ago. He figures that’s because survivors feel ­“empowered” to step forward but also because decades ago, “misogynistic behaviour around boys will be boys” was likely ­tolerated to an extent it isn’t now.

Stinson said generally ­speaking, when a student comes forward with an allegation of sexual assault in a school ­setting, school officials let the victim know there are resources and staff to support them, including a Safe and Healthy Schools Team, a Mobile Youth Services Team and police liaison officers.

The district says sexual assaults are a police matter and while the district defers to police if the student chooses to pursue charges, Stinson said the school will support students through the process as well as help gather preliminary information.

Stinson emphasized, however, that teachers and administrators are not experts in the field.

“I will say this is an area that educators — particularly ­principals and vice-principals — are not well trained in,” said Stinson. “It is not part of our teacher training.”

In the past, the response may have depended on the ­disposition of the principal, ­vice-principal or counsellor, or to whomever the student disclosed their story, he said.

This past spring, however, middle- and secondary-school principals and vice-principals received training on how to respond when an allegation comes in, how to communicate, and next steps. Guidance came in part from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

The guidelines are intended to help inform principals and vice-principals of “what we should and should not do as we gather information, and how we can move through in a much more supportive way than we have in the past because, I will say that, it has been rather ad hoc,” said Stinson.

In September, a full-time sexual health co-ordinator was hired by the district to work with K-12 students and ­teachers as part of the sexual health curriculum, which for Grade 7 students includes lessons on healthy relationships. In high school, it expands to include intimate-partner violence.

Woven throughout the ­curriculum are lessons on ­consent. Families are also encouraged to help empower kids to confidently make ­decisions about their bodies, feel more comfortable talking to trusted adults about these topics, and recognize the ­importance of setting and respecting boundaries.

Stinson said there’s been ­mistakes or “learnings” around incidents he wished didn’t ­happen in schools. The district said it recognized “training gaps.”

“Unfortunately, we are ­seeing circumstances of sexual ­harassment, sexual ­exploitation and sexual abuse coming ­forward,” said Stinson, “and so we do need to equip our ­principals and vice-principals with the skills to be able to ­better manage and support students as these things come forward.”

Jade’s case “isn’t the specific impetus for that to happen — it is one of some others,” he said.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to become better — ­particularly in this day and age where these kinds of issues are emerging — to be able to attend to them within the context that we have available to us.”

Stinson said if the RCMP can’t find the evidence to corroborate what happened to recommend charges, the school is restricted in what it can do “to provide ­consequence.”

In addition, many of the ­physical or sexual assaults or social-media abuses are ­happening outside of the school or school hours, he said.

“Our responsibility is to make sure that the educational ­environment is protected and that students feel safe when they are at school,” said Stinson. “What happens outside in the community has repercussions for that, but our ability to act in relation to that is quite limited.”

In some cases, said Stinson, the district offers the victim the opportunity to change classes or schools if that’s what they choose to do.

“We don’t force that upon them.”

Ongoing investigation

Today Jade is in high school — not the school she wanted and not in her catchment area, but the one where she is free from the boys she says attacked her.

“I think, for me, it’s like the damage has been done with my daughter and we have to deal with it and build her back up again,” said her father. “But think about all the other ­potential girls and young women who are going to have this ­happen to them, you know?

“Not only are they teaching my daughter that the authorities are going to do nothing, they’re teaching these [boys] that they’re going to get away with it. Nothing happens to them. Not even a detention.”

In May, Jade’s father took his complaints to the premier’s office, which was followed up by Public Safety Assistant ­Deputy Minister Glen Lewis, who ­suggested a course of action, starting with contacting West Shore Supt. Todd Preston.

“We humbly recognize the courage and strength that your daughter, yourself, and your family are demonstrating in working to identify areas where further response is needed,” wrote Lewis.

In June, Jade and her parents were invited to a meeting with Preston and Cpl. Chris Dovell.

Jade chastised the officers for not being prepared with all of her information for the meeting, said her parents, who were pleased to hear Jade’s case would be a top priority, handled by West Shore RCMP’s Special Victims Unit, which was ­established in December 2022 with officers who specialize in investigating sex-based crimes.

“We continue to conduct a thorough and c­omprehensive investigation,” Preston said in a statement. “I have ­personally met with the family and ­understand the concerns they have brought forward and that their expectations were not met.”

Preston said West Shore RCMP is committed to ­trauma-informed policing and officers “continue to receive training in this area.”

“We want to assure victims of crime who come forward to police that they will be heard and that we have the resources in place to investigate these complex sex-based offences,” he said.

West Shore RCMP said the investigation into Jade’s case is ongoing, and officers “will pursue all available avenues of investigation before closing it.”

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West Shore RCMP say the investigation into the student’s case is ongoing, and officers “will pursue all available avenues of investigation before closing it.” DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The new officer assigned to the case calls Jade’s mother regularly and police have asked Jade to make another statement.

To date, Jade has refused, ­saying her family has been told by others involved in her case that the exercise is more for validation than further investigation.

“I’ve done everything I’ve ever been told to do — go to the police, bring it forward, say your statement and they will take care of it,” said Jade.

“But instead I have to keep saying it and it makes me relive it each time. When you have to say what happened, it’s not like it’s your past, it’s like every time you say it all of a sudden it becomes your present and it’s a flood of emotions.”­

Her mother has sleepless nights imagining what would have happened if, when she dropped her daughter off at school, she had waited a minute longer before driving away — if she had only looked back.

Her father imagines that at a time when the MeToo ­movement was seared into ­society’s ­conscience, what if the Sooke School District and West Shore RCMP had backed up their “we believe you” ­mantra with an immediate trauma-informed investigation? Could there have been charges or some ­consequence for the accused boys?

These days, Jade’s hair is back to its natural colour and she can laugh again. She’s taking advantage of all the ­counselling made available to her, and ­trying to take advantage of the childhood she has left. She uses nature walks to find peace.

“I’m not going to be the same kid, but at least it’s some sort of being a kid,” she said.

She’s shedding the shame she once felt and she’s refusing to be silent. The family says everyone involved with victims services has been a rock of support for Jade, whose last hospital stay was in July.

“I don’t want what happened to me to be hidden like it was something that nobody should ever know,” said Jade.

She wants other survivors to know they are not alone, so they don’t struggle in silence and “go down the same road I went down.”

“I don’t believe anyone should ever feel how I felt,” said Jade. “I want people to know what happened.

“This is the last chance I have for justice.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

SEXUAL ASSAULT: HOW VICTIMS MIGHT REACT

Some of the most common ways victims react to sexual violence might seem counter-intuitive to others, says the federal Department of Justice.

Victims might freeze, not report or delay reporting, may have blanks in memory, may not say “no” clearly to unwanted sexual contact, may blame themselves for the assault, and may even have a relationship with the perpetrator after the assault, says a 2019 report on the impact of sexual assault.

Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada are on the rise. More than 34,000 were reported to police in 2021, up from almost 28,000 in 2018, according to incident-based crime statistics from Statistics Canada.

Only about six per cent of sexual assaults in Canada, however, are reported to police. Of those, only about 12 per cent led to a criminal conviction, according to a 2017 study by Statistics Canada.

Sexual assaults reported to police the day of the incident have a much higher chance of ending up in court.

Regardless, the trauma of sexual assault doesn’t just occur the day of the attack or end on the day of a conviction.

The lifetime prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from sexual assault is about 32 per cent, compared with about 10 per cent for non-crime-related trauma such as a car crash, according to a National Women’s Study of 4,008 adult women in the United States.

RESOURCES

Victoria Sexual Assault Centre.

Expect Respect & A Safe Education (erase) program

Confidentially report an issue to your school district’s safe school co-ordinator at through the erase Report It tool.

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