It’s been seven months since the Vancouver School Board announced a review of the presence of armed police officers in the city’s schools. An initial draft is expected to be made public in early March.
Yet controversy surrounding the school liaison officer program, operated in collaboration with the Vancouver Police Department, continues to grow.
As does community anger around recent changes that critics say make it harder for the public to address the school board and its committees about the police presence and other issues.
At a board policy and governance committee meeting Wednesday, it was revealed that a school liaison officer stationed at Lord Byng Secondary for the 2018-2019 school year was one of two officers involved in the shooting of a person of colour experiencing mental distress in 2014.
B.C.’s civilian police watchdog investigated the incident, and no charges were filed against the officer, Trevor Letourneau.
Markiel Simpson, a member of the BC Community Alliance, an umbrella group for Black organizations in Vancouver, raised the issue at the committee meeting to reiterate the alliance’s position that the school liaison officer program should be cancelled.
“The BC Community Alliance is requesting the immediate end of the Vancouver School Board’s school liaison officer program, and for the administration of the [board] to investigate these startling discoveries further,” Simpson said.
Letourneau, who has since been reassigned to another part of the police department, helped investigate the anti-Black racist bomb threat made by a Lord Byng student in November 2018.
At the meeting, Simpson said that the parents of a Black student at Lord Byng, who was 13 at the time, told the alliance that their child was stopped by Letourneau in a school hallway and interviewed without their permission shortly after the bomb threat was discovered.
Prior to the interview with Letourneau, the student was unaware of the threat a fellow student had made against Black people. The meeting was “petrifying” for the student, Simpson said.
Two other Black students would go on to leave Lord Byng in 2019, citing the way the investigation into the threats was handled as part of the reason for leaving.
The Tyee asked the Vancouver Police Department for comment from Letourneau about the meeting. A spokesperson instead directed The Tyee to two reports about the Byng incident from the department to the Vancouver Police Board. The reports do not go into detail about Letourneau’s interactions with students.
Who gets to speak?
The meeting last week was not the first time Simpson has addressed the committee regarding the presence of police in schools.
On Oct. 14, Simpson was one of seven delegates — six of whom identified as Black or African-Caribbean — who addressed the committee about the program.
All spoke out against police in schools and called for the immediate cancellation of the program.
And several of the delegates at that meeting, which was livestreamed and recorded, spoke about barriers they faced in signing up to speak.
These included requirements to share what they planned to say ahead of time in order to be approved to speak, as well as being rejected because another member of the Black community had already signed up to speak to the same issue.
Committee chair and school trustee Lois Chan-Pedley apologized to speakers at the meeting, and in an email to The Tyee, reiterated her regret over how she interacted with those wishing to speak, saying she was “grateful for feedback” and remains “committed to continual improvement.”
Two weeks later on Oct. 26, the Vancouver School Board approved several changes to how the public can address committees, including requiring people to share their presentations with meeting chairs before being approved to speak, and cutting their allotted speaking time from 10 minutes to five, with a maximum total of 45 minutes allotted for speakers.
Board chair Carmen Cho said the changes had nothing to do with the Oct. 14 meeting and were made to simplify the process of hearing from the public at committee meetings.
“The real purpose of that was to allow us to hear from more delegations at any one meeting, while still allowing committees to advance the work of their committee in a timely manner,” said Cho, adding the board is now considering a motion to add a monthly meeting specifically so trustees can hear from the public.
“The thinking behind this motion is, you wouldn’t necessarily have to follow the committees and know what’s coming up, you could just sign up to speak at that delegation evening, and it would be in front of the full board.”
The motion to change the speaker policy also included changes to the role of trustees and the board chair. During the Oct. 26 meeting, Cho explained that the changes to all policies stemmed from discussions she had with trustees in spring 2020, as well as a workshop where trustees agreed on the potential policy changes.
But people who spoke out against police in schools last fall see the change to speaking policies as a direct result of the Oct. 14 meeting.
Ruby Smith Diaz, who is of Black and Latinx ancestry, called the changes an example of anti-Black racism.
“That to me is a clear signal that the board claims to be interested in anti-racist initiatives, yet actively is barring people from attending and speaking up at their meetings,” she said, “specifically, Black communities and also, from what I know, Indigenous communities, as well.”
Kyla Epstein, a white parent of a mixed-race child, requested to speak about the policing program at the committee meeting last week. Her application was rejected, although the issue was on the meeting agenda.
Epstein was only allowed to speak when she told committee chair Chan-Pedley she wanted to present on the delegation sign-up process. Epstein addressed this in her comments to the committee Wednesday.
“Consider that when a member of the public wants to speak to you about an item on your agenda, that they don’t have to come at it sideways,” she said.
Chan-Pedley responded that she did not allow Epstein to speak to the police program because a separate meeting of all trustees has been established to hear from the public about the program on March 8.
Markiel Simpson did not mention the school liaison officer program when he requested to speak at the meeting.
“I had really examined the new [speaker] policy. And I just crafted my language really ambiguously so that I thought it would be approved, and it was,” he said.
In an interview with The Tyee, Epstein said the board’s stated commitment to anti-racism work — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — does not line up with its policies.
“Statements of endorsement are not systemic changes. Getting into process, design, learning and change is how we actually get into the systemic shifts,” Epstein said.
School board opted for review
In June 2020, despite requests to cancel the school liaison officer program from the District Parents Advisory Council, the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association, and several organizations representing Vancouver’s Black community, the school board instead opted to review it.
Critics of the review often point to the other Canadian districts that have cancelled their programs, including Hamilton, Edmonton and Toronto, the latter having already conducted an extensive review process.
Officers remain in Vancouver schools while the school board review is ongoing.
After issuing two requests for proposals for an organization to facilitate community outreach for the review, communications firm Argyle PR was chosen to get feedback from students, Vancouver police and members of the Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities.
While the review was initially expected to be finished by the end of December, the deadline has since been extended to March 3, when an initial draft will be presented to the policy and governance committee.
A March 8 meeting will allow for public feedback on the draft and the school board will receive the final version at its April 26 meeting.
The appointment of Argyle to lead the community outreach has been criticized by those who oppose the school liaison officer program.
Emily Johnson, a member of Black Lives Matter-Vancouver, said she was surprised that a PR firm with, “based on their website, an all-white leadership team,” was chosen.
“A PR firm isn’t necessarily who I was imagining was going to be doing a review of policing in schools and the impact it has on racialized students,” she said. “Having not had a chance to have a conversation with them yet, I’m still trying to keep an open mind.”
On Feb. 1, the school board posted a statement about the review on its website, addressing complaints about the lack of racial diversity on the Argyle leadership team.
“The agency recognizes that the leadership team is less diverse today than it aspires it to be tomorrow. That is why senior members of the team are expected to pursue training and ongoing education on equity, diversity and inclusion,” the statement read.
“Just under 20 per cent of the leadership team identifies as Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, including the CEO and majority owner who identifies as Latino and mixed race.”
The Tyee reached out to Argyle PR for an interview but did not receive a response.
Argyle is connecting with students, police and community members via video interviews, written submissions, an online survey and online group discussions with student leaders. It will collect feedback about the program but won’t provide any recommendations of its own to the board.
Smith Diaz says Argyle’s survey, which is open until Feb. 15, contains leading questions that may confuse students.
“They’re not really necessarily saying, ‘Many people have spoken out around the cancellation of the program, do you agree or disagree with this,’ it’s more like, ‘How do you want to change the program?’” she said.
Smith Diaz is also concerned about how the privacy of students who participate in the review will be protected. Gordon Lau, head of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, raised similar concerns at the Feb. 3 committee meeting
“These are communities that don’t necessarily feel safe,” he said.
The survey is only accessible via invitation, but The Tyee has posted a copy below.
‘The definition of the school-to-prison pipeline’
A historical review of police in schools, as well as a review of similar programs in other Canadian school districts, was completed in January and sent to people identified as stakeholders of the school board’s policy and governance committee. It can be read here.
The review found that contrary to school trustees’ understanding, the program was not started to train students to be crossing guards.
Rather in 1972, the Vancouver Police Department proposed stationing a police officer at Killarney Secondary and its elementary feeder schools “to improve relations between young people and the police.” It was expanded to other schools later that year.
Quincy Johnson, a 16-year-old student in the district, takes issue with the original stated reason for putting police into schools.
“Having officers in schools is the definition of the school-to-prison pipeline. If the police and [school board] want to help build a relationship between students of colour and police, don’t start by forcing us to interact with a police department [that] refuses to acknowledge institutional racism,” said Johnson, who is Black.
The historical review also revealed a memorandum of understanding signed between the police department and school board in 2006 about the program, which included establishing a joint committee between the two institutions to monitor it.
The report does not say whether such a committee exists today.