School coaches, teachers and other K-12 personnel will soon be required to complete new abuse prevention and recognition training, which covers topics ranging from power dynamics to their duty of care.
One month after a football coach at Winnipeg’s Vincent Massey Collegiate was arrested on initial charges related to former athletes’ allegations of sexual abuse, the province issued a directive to increase protections for students.
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko has told superintendents, and principals of funded independent schools, he expects them to review and update policies respecting professional boundaries between staff and students.
Documents should emphasize "the rule of two" for meetings outside of school and ban employees from hosting pupils in their homes unless they have written approval from a principal, Ewasko wrote in a letter dated May 11.
Manitoba will mandate all education workers to complete updated virtual training on how to prevent and recognize bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28, 2023.
The education department spends approximately $100,000 annually for an unrestricted licence to access virtual certification from the Respect Group organization; some schools have taken advantage of the resource in the past, but the new directive will make completing Respect in School training universal.
K-12 employees will have to complete an additional, sport-specific module to be allowed to coach a school team.
The certification, made available via Sport Manitoba, has been required for trainers across the province who work outside of the school system since 2007.
Citing the fact school staff are often among the first to hear from students who are in distress, Ewasko wrote that access to information about responding to and reporting suspected abuse is critical.
During a phone call this week, the minister noted criminal record checks and Manitoba’s Child Abuse Registry are in place to protect school communities, while the Kids Help Phone is available 24-7 to offer support.
"This is not just a certain school division issue. This is an all-of-Manitoba topic," he added.
"Are we going to stop all abusers and all assault? Probably not, but the more education we can get out to our bystanders, teachers, volunteers, coaches, parents, community members, guardians, and students and youth is paramount — and that’s what we need to do."
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society welcomes the enhanced protections.
Last month, both a teacher from Ste. Anne’s and a prominent Winnipeg high school coach, who was teaching physical education before his arrest, were charged in connection to different allegations of sexual misconduct.
Police have charged phys-ed teacher Kelsey McKay with eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one count of sexual interference for alleged offences involving teens between 2004 and 2011.
There is often "leakage" in a community when a person in power is alleged to have a history of committing sexualized violence, said Mary Lobson, a Winnipeg mother and advocate for the prevention of gender-based violence.
"The whisper network is an important part of the culture that doesn’t get talked about, and it gets dismissed and disregarded," she said.
In recent weeks, Lobson — who has a son who played football at Vincent Massey under McKay’s tenure — noted that she has learned of hearsay about the coach that circulated years ago and has only now surfaced due to his arrest.
Lobson founded Manitoba’s online sexual violence reporting platform, REES (Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors). She has partnered with post-secondary institutes to implement campus-specific offshoots of REES, which are essentially virtual one-stop shops for local resources and reporting options. She wants to work with school divisions to implement similar resources for students, parents and other community members to make reporting more accessible and provide whisper networks with an outlet.
Given many young people are comfortable with communicating online, perhaps more so than face-to-face interactions about private issues, Lobson said REES would make incident reporting more accessible to them.
Discussions are underway between REES and the Pembina Trails School Division, which is grappling with allegations from parents that its "thorough investigation" into complaints about McKay in 2016 was insufficient.
Superintendent Ted Fransen said the division’s overriding concern is that numerous families are hurting in 2022 as a result of the situation at Vincent Massey.
The reporting process in Pembina Trails is based on an "open door" approach, Fransen said, noting the trusting relationships built between students and staff, including school resource officers.
He said he is intrigued by the REES model — in particular, the program’s ability to flag when a perpetrator’s name is entered into the system in more than one independent report.
"We have a responsibility to keep our kids safe and we take that seriously," he said. "There’s no question that we’ll take a careful look at the cost, but there’s a bigger cost when it comes to the safety of our kids if we don’t take action."
Pembina Trails recently signed a three-year commitment to continue offering the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s national safety education program, Kids in the Know. It requires phys-ed teachers and school coaches to complete Respect in Sport training.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.