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Education

Did Lord Byng, School District Follow Threat Assessment Rules after Racist Video?

Parents still have questions around how officials communicated with them.

Katie Hyslop 14 Oct 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Parents and advocates have criticized Lord Byng Secondary School and Vancouver school district administrators for botching the response to a student’s racist and violent video targeting Black people.

Now questions have been raised about whether the school failed to fully follow the district’s procedure for assessing and responding to potential violent threat risks.

“Elise,” a Black student who reported the video to her vice-principal in November, and her mother have criticized the school and district for their response to the video, which was shared on social media by other students.

They say school officials failed to personally notify parents of Black students about the video, and the lack of transparency about disciplinary measures taken against the video-making student left them fearing he would return to the school. The school didn’t take their safety concerns seriously, they say, and refused their request for a mandatory assembly for the school community — students, teachers, staff and parents — outlining the district’s zero tolerance policy on racism.

After reporting the video, Elise was also subjected to racist bullying. The stress was so bad, they say, it drove both Elise and later another Black student away from Lord Byng for good.

The school’s principal and vice-principal, the Vancouver school district managers and police refuse to be interviewed about any aspect of the case, citing privacy concerns. They have acknowledged the video was made by a student.

But they have said they conducted a Violent Threat Risk Assessment that cleared the student when the video was reported last November.

The district’s risk assessment procedure is set out in detail in the district’s policies.

It calls on a school principal to inform parents of both the student considered a potential threat and those students deemed at-risk “at the earliest opportunity.”

But the parents of the two Black Lord Byng students who’ve since left the school as a result of the video say the school did not contact them directly.

Although their children were not named in the video, the parents have said it should be obvious that the video threatened their safety, given the small number of Black students at Lord Byng.

Elise’s mother said the school told her that because no specific Black people were named in the video, they didn’t believe any Black students were at risk.

She rejected that argument. The video included the student saying he wanted to kill Black people.

“Who are the Black people that he talked about? How are you going to tell us that is not including us?” Elise’s mom recalled telling Byng principal Geoff Taylor last November.

In incidents of “high-risk” behaviour, the threat assessment procedure says the administration is supposed to alert all school staff and, if deemed necessary, all parents “within a reasonable time period” when the assessment process is used.

The district told The Tyee earlier this year that all Lord Byng parents received emails about the incident and assessment on Monday, Nov. 19, the day the video was reported, and again a week later. The district hasn’t responded to requests to release the emails.

The Tyee obtained a copy of an email sent to parents on Wednesday, Nov. 21, a few days after Elise reported the video to Lord Byng’s administration.

“Currently, we are working with the student involved, the family, the police, and school district staff and are implementing the appropriate level of disciplinary and restorative actions,” the email from principal Taylor reads.

The email does not go into detail about the disciplinary or restorative actions, or who the racism was aimed at.

“I addressed the students and staff in the school this afternoon to provide information on what has happened and to acknowledge the range of emotions currently being experienced by the school community,” the email continued. “I want to reassure you that school staff are working hard to support our students and the community as we work through this troubling incident together.”

Elise’s mother has said that she didn’t receive that initial email. If her daughter had not told her about the video, she wouldn’t have known about it until the school sent a followup email a week later, she said.

A parent of another Black student, Suzanne Daley, found out about the video from a friend on Nov. 23. The delay in the school’s response increased the damage to students, she said.

“It could have been gone the next day [if] the principal and the school administration had just made the decision, ‘You know what, what you did is not cool, it’s a death threat. You’re out of my school, we don’t want that kind of culture here at Lord Byng.’ But that’s not what they did,” Daley said.

Daley’s child left Lord Byng over the summer after hearing that the video-making student might return to the school in the fall.

How the threat assessment procedure works

The video was reported to school vice-principal Mike Vulgaris on Nov. 19, after it had circulated on social media over the weekend.

That’s supposed to trigger a response under the district’s Violent Threat Risk Assessment procedure.

The procedure is a feature of the province-wide ERASE anti-bullying strategy launched under the then-BC Liberal government in 2012. All school principals and counsellors have to be trained to use the procedure to assess school safety if there are threats or “worrisome” or “high-risk” behaviours from anyone in the school community — students, staff, even parents.

The assessment process was developed by the Lethbridge-based North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response, which was created following two school shootings in April 1999: the Columbine, Colorado massacre, and a copycat shooting in Taber, Alberta eight days later.

The B.C. government partnered with the centre and the B.C.-based Safer Schools Together, a business that offers training and services in school safety, to design and implement the ERASE strategy.

Safer Schools Together provides the threat assessment training. President and founder Theresa Campbell said it has trained thousands of B.C. educators, police officers, social workers, probation officers, youth workers and medical professionals to use the tool.

The Tyee reached out to both the Vancouver school district and Vancouver Police Department to speak generally about how the Violent Threat Risk Assessment procedure works. The police turned down the request, referring us to the school district. The district referred us to Campbell.

Campbell said the assessment procedure looks at both the threat and the person who made it.

“It is truly training school teams to determine whether or not the threat maker poses a risk,” she said. “It’s one thing to make a threat, but it’s another thing to engage in behaviours consistent with the threat.”

She said the tool aims to open channels of communication between different groups of people.

“It’s allowing all of the professionals to speak the same language, increase information sharing, because many times you’ll have certain people that don’t realize that they can share information with each other to determine level of risk,” she said. “It’s really bringing people together to connect the dots to determine if the person is on the pathway to violence.”

The assessment can include interviews with a student, their teachers, family members, friends, the people who reported the threat and those who were threatened. A student’s social media posts, locker, notebooks, bags and even their bedrooms may be combed for content like notes with further threats, indications of suicidal ideation and access to weapons.

Each school district has its own policies about implementing the risk assessment team procedure.

The Vancouver district appoints the school principal as the Violent Threat Risk Assessment team leader. Other members include the vice-principal, school counsellor, school liaison officer — a police officer assigned to the school — and other staff as the principal deems necessary.

“Depending on severity of the perceived behaviour,” reads the Vancouver district’s assessment guide, “this team may be expanded to also include police officers, physicians, psychologists or psychiatrists, child welfare workers, or mental health professionals.”

In the case of an “immediate risk,” such as an armed student making threats, the guide directs the principal to contact police before taking immediate action — measures like evacuation or moving to a school lockdown.

The guide says that if a student is displaying high-risk behaviour — making statements or art that allude to violence, or making threats, obtaining weapons or acting violently — the principal’s first responsibility is to call the police. The school liaison officer investigates and decides whether to recommend criminal charges to Crown prosecutors.

“Many cases, you’ll have a threat that’s made that doesn’t meet the threshold for a criminal charge,” said Campbell. “But we still want to see an assessment to see what is going on for this person for them to engage in this behaviour.”

The rest of the school’s Violent Threat Risk Assessment team is then notified of the risk. In Vancouver, the district’s director of instruction is also informed. If the student is perceived to be a threat, the district’s Violent Threat Risk Assessment team joins the process.

The student who poses the risk may be suspended, but that punishment is supposed to come with support services to ensure the student isn’t isolated.

Parents and advocates at Lord Byng say the lack of transparency around the video and the school’s response also harmed Black students.

The school and district refused to provide any information about what would happen to the student who made the video, including whether he would return to Lord Byng. Again, it cited privacy concerns.

But the lack of information left parents unsure of whether their children would have to face the student who made the video — a factor that contributed to the two students’ decision to leave the school.

The student who made the video and his family recently released apologies and their own timeline of events. They disclosed the initial punishment was a three-day suspension that eventually turned into five weeks, and then extended to the rest of the school year.

Vancouver’s risk assessment procedure notes that if a student is suspended, the assessment team and school support services should continue to be involved in their life. But the family said the school did not communicate with them during the five-week suspension, despite their repeated attempts. They say the choice to remove the student from Lord Byng for the rest of the school year was their own, though they did hope he could return this year.

A family representative confirmed to The Tyee that the student, now in Grade 11, will not be returning to Lord Byng.

“My apology alone will never fully express what I have learned from what has happened over this past year,” reads the statement from the student. “I will grow from this and prove to be someone committed to speaking out against racism and being a part of real solutions against it, for the rest of my life.”

In their statement, the student’s family insisted the school, district and the police investigated their child as a possible safety threat and cleared him last November.

The final step in the district’s risk assessment procedure is to implement prevention measures, if needed, to stop future threats. Those can include updating the school code of conduct; promoting better connections between students, faculty and staff; or addressing racism, homophobia and sexism in the school community. The Vancouver district assessment guide refers to this as “planning interventions to decrease risk.”

The school did host an assembly with Black Lives Matter and a student forum to discuss the incident. However, Elise said only 50 students showed up to the forum, and the assembly was about activism, not racism.

If it’s considered safe for the offending student to return to the school, the Vancouver risk assessment guide states the student’s re-entry plan is also planned by the team. But according to the family of the student who made the video, that didn’t happen.

Instead the family says they created their own “restorative action plan” for their son to “ensure that there were further consequences to the student’s actions and that he knew there was much more than just suspension as a consequence.”

Tasha Clarke, a member of the BC Community Alliance, an umbrella group of Black Vancouver organizations and others concerned about the district’s response to the video, said more should have been done to support Black students, and that the school and district should have recognized Black students were targets even if they weren’t named.

“I think it’s really important for administration to understand the implications, and how students of colour are impacted by these incidents,” she told The Tyee last month.

“Ten months out, those that were impacted still haven’t recovered, because they never got the supports that they needed immediately following that incident going public.”  [Tyee]

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