Lawsuit alleges child placed in holds, isolation at Haines Junction, Yukon, school

A close-up of the sign on the side of the courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
A close-up of the sign on the side of the courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

A student with disabilities at Haines Junction's St. Elias Community School in the Yukon was regularly put in holds or isolation when they became "emotionally heightened" or "disobedient," a new lawsuit alleges.

Lawyers representing the unnamed child and their guardian filed a statement of claim to the Yukon Supreme Court on May 17, naming the Yukon Department of Education and the former school council as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that school staff regularly put the child in holds — sometimes for hours at a time — between 2015 and 2017, when the child became emotionally dysregulated or didn't follow instructions the first time they were given. It also claims staff, none of which are individually named in the legal documents, would lock the child alone in one of two "isolation rooms," or in other rooms at the school, up until 2018.

"What's most alarming at this point is that we've not yet discovered the full extent of the impact on this student," Luke Faught, one of the lawyers representing the student and guardian, said in an interview.

The allegations have not yet been tested in court, and no statements of defence had been filed as of May 28.

Faught is also part of the law firm leading a class-action lawsuit related to similar allegations about the use of holds and isolation at Whitehorse's Jack Hulland Elementary School between 2007 and 2022.

"It's not lost on us, the parallels between the Jack Hulland case and the St. Elias case," he said.

"And it's got us really curious about what else has been going on in the other schools in the Yukon."

Like the Jack Hulland case, the St. Elias lawsuit alleges that while the guardian witnessed some instances of the child being placed in a hold, staff did not inform them about the full extent of the situation. It also claims staff told the guardian that holds and isolation were "necessary to regulate or de-escalate" the child and "suggested there were factors from home contributing" to the child's behaviour at school.

In an email, Department of Education spokesperson Sophie Best wrote that the department, along with the Department of Justice, was "considering" the statement of claim and would respond "following our review."

"The safety and protection of students is the top priority for the Department of Education… We all have a mutual interest in the safety of students and staff, and in supporting the St. Elias school community," the email reads in part.

Best also wrote that the education department was working with the justice department and First Nation School Board, which St. Elias joined in 2022, to "review the matter and to communicate with and support the St. Elias school community."

School board communications director  Roxanne Stasyszyn confirmed in an email that the education department had been in touch about the lawsuit, and that "our next steps are ensuring support for our school community including counselling support for both staff and students impacted by this news."

The First Nation School Board did not exist at the time of the allegations. St. Elias was under the authority of the Yukon education department during the timeframe outlined in the lawsuit.