In the years before a Winnipeg high school soccer coach was accused of sexually abusing and exploiting students, some parents expressed concerns to the school and department that children under his leadership were at risk.
Kelsey McKay, 51, taught at Vincent Massey Collegiate for six years after the school’s department said it had conducted a “thorough” investigation into allegations of cross-conduct 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 accountable sooner and why the school and department didn’t do more. They want to see changes in schools across the province so there are better mechanisms to report concerns about 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 a parent, whom CBC News didn’t name to protect their son’s identity.
McKay faces a number of charges: eight counts of sexual assault, seven counts of sexual exploitation, six counts of luring and one count of sexual interference.
The alleged incidents date from 2004 to 2011 and involved eight former football players – seven from when McKay taught at Churchill High School and one from his days at Vincent Massey.
None of the allegations were proven in court.
One of the parents of a now-graduate student said they realized things were strange when their son, who normally “lives and breathes football”, didn’t want to continue playing in the 12th grade.
“My son went from loving football to hating it and expressed he was quitting,” they said.
“Then he started sharing with me a lot of very bizarre, inappropriate behavior from his head football coach, Kelsey McKay, on and off school grounds.”
The parent said McKay would text her son 24/7 on topics unrelated to football or school.
The coach would also belittle and scold her son and be very kind and full of praise for him the next day, the parent said.
“We had some concerns about his boundaries and personal behavior,” said another parent.
“He had many followers. He was very good at building this group of people around himself. What we saw was him building people up and knocking them down, which we saw with the boys.”
At one point, the parent said the trainer 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 her sons at an off-school location and brought treats.
Behavior investigated by school department
The parents said they raised their concerns with the director of the Vincent Massey Collegiate. Superintendent Ted Fransen said they were thoroughly investigated, including involving the school’s resource officer.
“We followed up on every piece of information that parents and students gave us,” he told CBC News, but at the time no one had made allegations of a criminal nature.
Fransen says McKay was asked to do this and did so Commit to the children’s exercise program through the Canadian Center for Child Protection, which aims to help adults recognize behavior they hear about or witness and encourages them to escalate concerns to the appropriate person.
Noni Classen, the organization’s director of education, says there was no discussion or disclosure of the reasons for the department’s request for access to the training program.
“It is common for our organization to receive requests from school departments and other child care organizations for access to our training materials,” she said in a statement.
Fransen says the coach was told not to have any contact with students outside of school events.
But one parent says shortly after McKay was told not to contact players six years ago, he texted her son and spoke to him personally outside of a sporting context.
The parent says easier access and greater awareness of how to report behavior could help prevent abuse.
“I’d like to see something where anyone who has a concern can report anonymously and then someone has to start an investigation,” they said.
Education Secretary Wayne Ewasko, in a May 11 letter to schools, announced that school coaches, teachers and other K-12 personnel must complete new abuse prevention and detection training between September 1, 2022 and February 28, 2023.
School leaders are also expected to review and update their policies regarding professional boundaries between staff and students, the letter said.
Policies should emphasize having more than one adult present at out-of-school meetings and prevent staff from admitting students at home unless they have written permission from a school principal.
Geordie Wilson, who coaches the Winnipeg Rifles junior soccer team and is open about preventing abuse in the sport, says it’s a step forward.
“It’s not something that will stop sexual assault, but it will reduce it. And try again to get these guys out in the sunlight so we can see them operating instead of having them operate in the shadows, which is what we’re doing right now,” he told CBC News on Wednesday.
Every step forward is positive for the parents of former Vincent Massey footballers.
“As a parent and as a citizen, I want every child to be safe and I don’t want families to have to go through what we’ve been through,” said one parent.
“Maybe if something else were done… [the former players who came forward to police] could have announced earlier what happened to them.”
The Winnipeg Police Department’s Sex Crimes Division is still investigating and anyone who would like to speak to investigators can contact them at 204-986-6245.
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually abused. You can access hotlines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you are in imminent danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.