The Vancouver School Board is going to review — but not halt — the program that puts police in schools across the district.
Trustees Lois Chan-Pedley, Barb Parrott and chair Janet Fraser originally moved the district to suspend the program while a review was done.
But after almost an hour of debate Monday evening, the majority of the board voted against suspending the controversial program while the review takes place.
The motions on the issue were just two of the seven racism-related motions discussed at the four-hour meeting, the board’s last of the 2019/20 school year.
The presence of police in schools has come under heightened scrutiny as protests over the deaths of Black and Indigenous people at police hands swept North America. The recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States, and Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Rodney Levi in Canada.
Four of the five victims were killed after police were asked by family and friends to check in on their loved one.
The original motion from Chan-Pedley, Parrott and Fraser would have halted the 16-officer program, which is operated and funded by the Vancouver Police Department, while a review was conducted. But it was amended to produce two motions — one to review, which passed, and one to suspend the program, which was defeated.
Every trustee voted in favour of reviewing the program as part of the development of a district-wide anti-racism and discrimination strategic plan.
Parents, students and trustees, including Jennifer Reddy and Chan-Pedley, have called on the district to respond more effectively to racism in schools after several hate-motivated incidents, including anti-Black racist threats at Lord Byng Secondary in 2018 that eventually resulted in two Black students transferring to other schools.
At the meeting, Chan-Pedley said officers should be removed from schools during the review.
“I think it’s sometimes harmful to some students, and that’s something we’ve been hearing a lot lately. Our top priority is to protect our students and ensure they feel safe and welcoming,” she said. “I think that while the review is going on, we need to show that business is not as usual. And I think a suspension is one way to do that.”
Trustees said hundreds of people who initially contacted the board about the program had been in favour of eliminating police from schools. But that had changed in recent days, some trustees said, with emails of support for the program from students, staff and families, including from racialized people.
Many trustees feared if the program was suspended, the Vancouver Police Department would cancel it permanently.
Board vice-chair Carmen Cho said the department provides student supports at no cost to the district.
These include Here4Peers, a mental health program; Churchill Strong, an after-school workout program at Churchill Secondary School; the Strathcona Backpack Program, which provides students’ meals on the weekend; and support for Contributing to Lives of Inner City Kids, a non-profit that funds health, well-being and recreation programs for low-income kids.
“I’m just concerned that those supports would be lost if we suspend the program during the review,” Cho said. “I think we need to consider how would we provide that additional support to students.”
Reddy, who voted in favour of suspending the program during review, spoke about the Vancouver Police Department’s fraught relationship with Indigenous, Black and racialized people.
The program, she said, violates the district’s “access without fear” policy.
“As parents have mentioned already, some missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls did go to our schools,” said Reddy. “The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry actually detailed that the VPD failed to prevent and protect Indigenous women from violence and failed to diligently investigate violence when it did occur.”
Reddy also brought up VPD statistics that showed 15 per cent of police street check subjects were Indigenous people, despite making up four per cent of the population. Black people in Vancouver, who are less than one per cent of the population, made up nearly five per cent of stops.
But trustee Fraser Ballantyne, a former school principal, said he didn’t see the connection between police treatment of racialized, Black and Indigenous people outside the school and how officers in schools related to students.
He defended the program for preventing sex trafficking of students at a school he worked in.
“We’re not talking about the Indigenous women, we’re focusing on our students,” he said in response to Reddy.
“I can tell you about another situation where I’m picking a machete out of a locker,” Ballantyne said. “A Vietnamese brought this and through the interpreter said that they used this machete to cut their meat for the dinner, which, obviously, through the interpreter, she corrected and said, ‘No sir, this is not what we do.’”
Ballantyne claimed that “Caucasian” students are a visible minority in Vancouver schools, despite the fact the school district only collects race-based data for Indigenous students. He also suggested their feelings about the police presence in schools should be heard.
“I think a number of trustees will be quite surprised to hear the level of their connectedness to this program,” Ballantyne said.
Trustee Parrott, who helped draft the motion, said the original school liaison officer program was about teaching Grade 6 and 7 students how to be crossing guards.
She advocated suspending the program and replacing police officers in schools with student access to nurses, psychologists and social workers, an argument frequently made when calling for defunding the police.
“If we’re talking about weapons in the school, of course that’s an issue for the police,” Parrott said. “But talking about helping students get out of a situation where they’re being recruited, I don’t think the police are the best group to handle that.”
Reddy also noted that no one on the nine-person board is Black or Indigenous, and those were the communities that needed to weigh in on the issue based on their experiences with police.
Other trustees pointed out that because most students are not in school due to the pandemic, school liaison officers are not in schools. It is unclear when normal classes and the liaison officer program will resume.
After nearly an hour of debate, board chair Fraser, who helped write the motion, voted against suspending the program during the review. Only Reddy, Parrott and Pedley-Chan voted in favour, with six trustees against it.
Fraser said she’s aware the City of Vancouver is discussing changes to policing with various levels of government, non-profits and other organizations, but said any change will take time.
“I appreciate there are conversations happening about defunding the police, and I think those are really important conversations,” she said.
Fraser said it’s too soon to make a decision on police presence in schools.
“We have not given our VSB stakeholders the opportunity to give feedback,” she said. “We’ve not been able to hear from our parent groups or our students.... This is one of the most difficult questions that’s come before the board. I do not support suspending the program.”
Earlier in the meeting, Fraser listed actions the district has taken so far in addressing racism, including work on a strategic plan to address racism district-wide; changing their naming policy for schools; and hiring a district resource teacher specifically to address racism in schools.
The district put her full statement up on their website today.
Another motion calling for mandatory full-day anti-racism training for all educators and staff, brought forward by Reddy, was referred to the district’s personnel subcommittee to determine the cost and whether training is better delivered by the province or the district. The committee does not meet again until the fall.
But three motions related to racism brought forward by trustee Allan Wong were passed, including one calling on the province to work with stakeholders and the community to develop Canadian Black history education curriculum, while letting the Education Ministry know the district is willing to pilot curriculum, learning resources and professional development programs.
The board was informed that Vancouver’s own board-authorized course on the history of people of African Descent in British Columbia and Canada is expected to be available for schools in the 2020/21 school year. Education Minister Rob Fleming also pledged earlier this month to include Black history in the B.C. curriculum.
Wong’s last two motions were about bringing ideas to the BC School Trustees Association’s annual meeting next April, including calling on the association to create a provincial database of racist incidents in schools and to pressure the ministry to create Canadian Black history curriculum.
Parrott supported the database proposal. “Words are power, and I think the experience of putting these incidents into words gives the people who are experiencing racism, power,” she said. “I also think it’s really important for us to have data collected in order to see if what we’re doing is making a difference.”
All three motions passed unanimously. Fraser said they could likely be brought to the association’s provincial committee before the spring conference.