In the years before a Winnipeg high school football coach was charged with sexual abuse and exploitation of students, some parents raised concerns with the school and the division that children under his leadership were at risk.
Kelsey McKay, 51, continued to teach at Vincent Massey Collegiate for six years after the school division says it undertook a “thorough” investigation into allegations of boundary-crossing behaviour and bullying.
On April 12, McKay was arrested by Winnipeg police and subsequently placed on unpaid leave by the Pembina Trails School Division.
Now, parents of former students are wondering why McKay wasn’t held to account earlier, and why the school and division didn’t do more. They want to see change in schools across the province so there are better mechanisms to report concerns of possible abuse.
“This is about our kids … We only have eight students who have come forward and that might just be the tip of the iceberg,” said one parent, whom CBC News isn’t naming to protect the identity of their son.
McKay is facing a number of charges: eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one of sexual interference.
The alleged incidents date from 2004 to 2011 involving eight former football players — seven from when McKay taught at Churchill High School and one from his time at Vincent Massey.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
One of the parents of a now graduated student said they noticed things were strange when their son, who normally “lives and breathes football,” didn’t want to continue playing in Grade 12.
“My son went from loving football to hating football and expressed that he was going to quit,” they said.
“Then he started sharing with me a lot of very bizarre, inappropriate behaviour from his head football coach, Kelsey McKay, on and off the school grounds.”
The parent said McKay would text their son at all hours on topics that weren’t football or school-related.
The coach would also belittle and berate her son and the next day be very kind and full of praise for him, the parent said.
“We had some concerns about his boundaries and his personal behaviour,” said another parent.
“He had a lot of followers. He was very good at creating this group of people around him. What we saw was that he’d build people up and he’d knock them down, which is what we saw with the boys.”
At one point, the parent said the coach disclosed personal information at a time and in a setting the parents felt was inappropriate.
In another incident the parents are aware of, McKay met up with their sons at a location outside of school and brought treats.
Conduct investigated by school division
The parents and the school resource officer brought those concerns, as well as stories of McKay inviting students to social events to the school principal at the time, who took the information to the Pembina Trails School Division.
Superintendent Ted Fransen says they were thoroughly investigated.
“We followed up on every single bit of information that parents and students gave us,” he told CBC News, but at the time, no one had come forward with allegations of a criminal nature.
Fransen says McKay was required to and did complete the Commit to Kids training program through the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which is designed to help adults identify concerning behaviours they hear about or witness and to encourage bringing forward concerns to the appropriate person.
Noni Classen, the director of education for the organization, says there was no discussion or disclosure of any sort about the reasons behind the division’s request for access to the training program.
“It is a common occurrence for our organization to receive requests from school divisions and other child-serving entities for access to our training materials,” she said in a statement.
Fransen says the coach was told not to have contact with students outside of school events.
But one parent says shortly after McKay was told not to contact players six years ago, he sent her son text messages and spoke with him in person outside of a sports context.
The parent says easier access and greater awareness about how to report concerning behaviour could help prevent abuse.
“I would like to see something in place where anybody who’s got concerns can report anonymously and then someone has to start an investigation,” they said.
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko announced in a letter to schools dated May 11 that school coaches, teachers and other K-12 personnel are required to complete new abuse prevention and recognition training between Sept. 1, 2022, and Feb. 28, 2023.
School leaders are also expected to review and update their policies regarding professional boundaries between staff and students, the letter says.
The policies should emphasize that more than one adult is present for meetings outside of school, and bar employees from hosting students in their homes unless they have written approval from a principal.
Geordie Wilson, who coaches the Winnipeg Rifles junior football team and is outspoken about preventing abuse in sports, says that’s a step forward.
“It’s not something that’s going to stop sexual assault, but it’s going to reduce it. And again, try to bring these guys out into the sunlight so we can see them operating instead of letting them operate in the shade, which right now we are,” he told CBC News on Wednesday.
Any step forward is positive for the parents of former football players at Vincent Massey.
“As a parent and a citizen, I want to see every child safe and I don’t want any families to go through what we went through,” one parent said.
“Maybe if something else was done … [the former players who came forward to police] would have been able to share what happened to them sooner.”
The Winnipeg police sex crimes unit continues to investigate and anyone wishing to speak to investigators can contact them at 204-986-6245.
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.