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Municipal Politics

The Deep Divide on Police in Vancouver Schools Continues

The school board heard passionate words for and against the school officer program at two public meetings.

Katie Hyslop 10 Mar

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

Just one week after receiving a report on community consultations about a program that places police in Vancouver’s schools, trustees had a chance to hear directly from the public at special meetings on Monday and Tuesday night.

Opinions at both meetings were sharply divided, with 12 people speaking in favour of the school liaison officer program, 18 against, and all equally passionate about their position on whether Vancouver Police Department officers should continue to be stationed in the district’s schools.

The consultation report the public was reacting to, released last week, found most of the over 1,900 people consulted were in favour of the program. But a significant proportion of Indigenous and Black people were against police in schools.

Consulting company Argyle PR warned its consultations were more likely to attract people with positive experiences with police, compared to those with negative experiences.

People who supported the SLO program at the meetings earlier this week spoke about the perceived safety benefits of having a police officer in the schools and how it helps “humanize” police.

“How do high school students create a relationship with the police? It’s not with the police officer doing patrol; it is with the school liaison officer,” said Ali Chaudhry, a former student in the district. “They are the bridge between police officer and the youth.”

Vancouver Police Department superintendent Fiona Wilson, who leads the school liaison officer program, said the program is one of the few ways police can be “proactive” in interacting with the public, as opposed to reacting to crime.

Other speakers described their negative experiences with both school liaison officers and the broader police department, and how these encounters have had lifelong repercussions.

Jamie Smallboy, an Indigenous mother with a child in the Vancouver district, spoke of her negative experiences with police when she experienced homelessness. She also spoke of her son’s anxiety on seeing a police car in his school parking lot.

“He asked why cops have to be at his school. He told me that he knows that any altercation, or any time he says something, questions or actions or even looks at them the wrong way, it would have extreme results,” she said, adding that police were involved when the provincial children’s ministry temporarily apprehended her kids.

“An SLO call to the principal could lead to a call to the ministry, which could lead to another apprehension,” she said.

Maskwacis Cree Nation speaker Richard Smallboy recalled how repeated harassment from his school liaison officer drove him to drop out of Vancouver Technical Secondary. Later his brother, who was in Smallboy’s care at the time, had a disturbing encounter with the liaison officer at a different high school, Smallboy said.

“He was in the principal’s office, and when I arrived the SLO, along with two other police officers, had my brother pinned down with their knees to his neck and his body, and had him in handcuffs,” Smallboy said. His brother had a “mild intellectual disability” and was under the influence of substances that day, he said.

“In response to someone that’s dealing with a mental health issue, I don’t find this as an appropriate response, and my brother was quite traumatized from the incident.”

The SLO program, which began in 1972, has been under the microscope since the Vancouver School Board was pushed to remove police from schools last June.

Similar programs that put police in schools in Toronto and Hamilton were cancelled in recent years, and Edmonton has suspended its program while it conducts a review.

But the Vancouver district opted to review its program instead of cancelling it, and to keep the 17 police officers in schools until the review is finished.

The program, funded by the Vancouver Police Department, sees police officers in schools acting as a legal resource for students and staff; chaperoning field trips; coaching sport teams; joining student clubs; acting as security for the school; and investigating crimes related to the school.

Superintendent Wilson said that between 2015 and 2019, there were over 7,000 “documented interactions” between school liaison officers and students. Of those, 27 students were charged, six of whom had their charges later dropped.

No statistics on the race or ethnicity of those students charged were provided. But nationally, Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons, while the Vancouver Police Department’s own street check data shows a disproportionate number of both Indigenous and Black people stopped by police.

In its plans for community consultations about the school liaison program, the school district called on Argyle to “centre the voices” of students who identified as Indigenous, people of colour and Black.

Nearly half of the 1,500 people who responded to Argyle’s survey on the program identified as people of colour, specifically East Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Oceanian. They were most likely out of all the racially self-identified survey participants to feel positively or neutral about the program.

Argyle’s consultation report noted that most of the people with positive and negative opinions of police in schools, as opposed to neutral, had a direct experience with their school’s liaison officer.

That was the case for almost all 12 people who spoke in favour of the program, over half of whom were people of colour. Five speakers were current or former members of the Vancouver Police Department’s cadet program for secondary school students, while three were current Vancouver police officers, including superintendent Wilson.

Most speakers cited how their school liaison officer inspired them to become a police officer, a member of the cadet program or to stay “on the right path.”

“Many students who were going through tough times could seek help from our school liaison officer, and they would always be respectful,” said Amaan Nanji, a former cadet and Kitsilano Secondary alum. “They would always be open-minded and give second chances to students who may have experimented with drugs and alcohol.”

Abijit Dhadwal, a current police cadet and Tupper Secondary student, accused the district of deflecting racism accusations onto the school liaison program instead of dealing with racism in schools.

“I have felt racism in our schools, in our elementary and secondary schools, and it has never been from an SLO,” said Dhadwal, who identifies as a Sikh Canadian.

“I take it as a slap in the face that when teachers, educators or other students are caught being racist, they’re given a slap on the wrist or suspended for only a short period of time. And then they return to work like it never happened.”

Dhadwal acknowledged racism in policing in the United States, but not in Vancouver.

“The police department cares about their students. I think it’s important to reach out or talk to your SLO and get to know them,” he said.

At the meeting on Tuesday, Vee Bui, a queer, non-binary person of Vietnamese descent and an alum of the Vancouver school district, told the board they had an anxiety attack watching the current and former cadets speak at the Monday meeting.

Bui said by encouraging cadets, nearly all of South Asian descent like Bui, to defend the SLO program at these meetings, the Vancouver Police Department was “tokenizing and weaponizing South Asian youth against Black and Indigenous communities.”

Members of the Black community who participated in Argyle’s consultations were the most opposed to police in schools. Changich Baboth, a Grade 12 student in the district has been calling on the district to shut down the SLO program since last June, though she was not part of Argyle’s consultations.

She is also the student who reported an anti-Black racist death threat made by a fellow student at Lord Byng Secondary in 2018, the fallout from which eventually led to Baboth leaving the school.

Baboth, who is Black, couldn’t attend either school board meeting this week, so Tracey McIntosh of the non-profit Justice for Girls, where Baboth is also employed, read a statement on Baboth’s behalf about her interactions with former Lord Byng Secondary school liaison officer Const. Trevor Letourneau after reporting the death threat.

“One comment made by the SLO... still sticks with me today. He said: ‘Don’t be a victim.’ All I wanted in that moment was to be understood, to be heard, to be asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ But instead, I was gaslighted,” McIntosh read.

Baboth’s statement made mention of Letourneau’s involvement in the police shooting death of Tony Du, a mentally ill person of colour, in 2014. B.C.’s independent police watchdog investigated the death and no charges were laid against Letourneau, who no longer works as a school liaison officer.

Two other speakers brought up Letourneau’s role in Du’s death and his work as an SLO officer in Vancouver schools as a reason to shut down the program.

The Tyee has previously requested an interview with officer Letourneau about his involvement in Du’s death and his work as an SLO at Lord Byng Secondary, but the Vancouver Police Department declined to grant the request.

Parent, educator and researcher Parker Johnson challenged the notion that police made schools safer by citing a 2018 report from the U.S. that found students who attended a school with a police officer were five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than those who did not have cops in their schools.*

“Health and safety is not defined by the presence of a police officer,” Johnson said.

Three other speakers pointed to the recent violent arrests of the Braided Warriors, a protest group of mainly First Nations people under 25, by the Vancouver police last month as evidence that young Indigenous people are not safe around police.

Nish Thaver, a queer person of colour and educator, also mentioned a recent incident with the Surrey RCMP where Black youth were ordered out of their home at gunpoint last month.

“These experiences that youth have with police are not OK,” Thavers said. “And I want to ask the board: is there a certain number of students that need to be harmed by police before this program will be cancelled? Is that what you are saying at this point? Because that’s what I am hearing.”

Nancy Trigueros Chavez, a Latina educator working with students with autism spectrum disorder, recalled how she came to understand how afraid some students are of police while piloting a program to help young people with autism safely interact with police.

“I remember one of the participants, very clearly, was a 16-year-old student, a visible minority student, who responded to my question of what he would do if the police approached him. ‘I would run for my life because he would try to kill me,’” she said, adding she saw this fear in other young people with autism, too.

School trustees asked the speakers to provide their ideas for alternatives to police in schools.

Many referenced hiring additional school counsellors, resource teachers, restorative justice practitioners and even people to help students and their families find housing. However, any funds saved from cancelling the program will return to the Vancouver Police Department, as it is the program funder.

Richard Smallboy said before he dropped out of Vancouver Technical Secondary, the school counsellor arranged for a restorative justice talking circle with an Elder to help Smallboy and a student who was bullying him talk out their issues.

“When I would see him in the halls afterward,” Smallboy said of his former bully, “we would nod at each other respectfully.”

Trixie Nguyen, a current Vancouver Technical student and member of the school’s Student Voice Club, advocated for more student clubs instead of police, who she referred to as part of “a system of violence and oppression.”

“Of course, we cannot deny some of the good that comes from the program, though we should not let one good action make do for all the harm brought by the program,” she said, adding even Black, Indigenous and people of colour can view the program through a “white supremacist lens” by ignoring the harm it causes.

“When a relationship gets abusive, you need to walk away from it.”

The consultation report will go back to the district’s policy and governance committee on April 7 to hear from stakeholders like the teacher union locals, the District Parent Advisory Council and other district affiliated organizations.

Then it goes before the Vancouver School Board on April 26, when trustees are expected to make their recommendations on the future of the school liaison officer program.

*Story updated on March 10 at 2:33 p.m. to correct that the aforementioned report was from the U.S., not Ontario.  [Tyee]

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