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Municipal Politics

Vancouver Considers Bringing Back School Liaison Officers

The program was cancelled in 2021, but ABC Vancouver campaigned on reviving it.

Katie Hyslop 23 Nov

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

Last week over 60 parents, teachers, union leaders and members of the public signed up to address the Vancouver School Board in one of four public meetings being held this week about a motion to put police officers back in Vancouver’s public schools.

Yet on Monday evening, when the first Public Delegation Board Meeting was held, most of the speakers had not even seen the board’s draft motion because it was shared with speakers just hours before the meeting began at 5 p.m.

The deadline for signing up to address the board was Nov. 16. More delegation meetings will be held Nov. 22 to 24. The official draft of the motion is expected to be released to the public on Friday, Nov. 25, as part of the agenda for the Nov. 28 board meeting.

“It is hard to not see this whole process as perfunctory,” said Shahira Sakiyama, a parent of three speaking against the SLO program on Monday evening, referring to the release of the draft motion just hours before the meeting. “You already made a decision. How rude.”

The motion, drafted by board vice-chair Preeti Faridkot, calls on the board to draft a letter to Vancouver Police Department requesting the creation of a revised School Liaison Officer program, “which takes into consideration the thoughtful inputs and opportunities from the 2021 SLO engagement report compiled by Argyle Communications, along with those from stakeholders and the community.”

According to the draft, the proposed new officer program, which would work in tandem with the district’s Safe and Caring Schools Department, created after the SLO program was cancelled in 2021, is expected to be operational no later than September 2023, according to the draft.

In place from 1972 until it was cancelled by the school board in 2021, the School Liaison Officer program saw armed uniformed police officers stationed in 17 of the district’s high schools. The program worked with elementary feeder schools, as well. In addition to being a legal resource for the school, officers were also involved in student clubs and extracurricular activities.

The program was cancelled over concerns of the negative impact the officers’ presence had on some Black and Indigenous people.

Of the 19 people who addressed the school board about the SLO program during Monday’s meeting, 15 spoke against putting cops back in schools, citing past harms and the potential for future harm to Black and Indigenous students in particular.

Leona Brown, a Gitxsan and Nisga’a mother of three, said the biggest safety issues facing Indigenous children in schools are bullying and racism, and cops are not the solution.

“The last time this was up for discussion, many of us in the community worked very hard to have it removed from the school system specifically because it causes harm to Indigenous people,” said Brown, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in October’s municipal election.

“I don’t think there’s enough violence or data to support bringing SLOs back in schools.”

Four people spoke in favour of the program, including two who called for a revised version of the program, like having unarmed, plain clothes police officers conducting SLO duties.

Pall Singh Beesla, a member of the city’s South Asian community and father of two, said he was disappointed just six per cent of respondents in the 2021 SLO consultation report identified as South Asian, compared to 33 per cent white and 33 per cent East Asian. Black and Indigenous people made up just four per cent of respondents each.

“I felt that my community, the Punjabi-Sikh community, wasn’t being heard,” Beesla said about the 2021 consultations. “Now it’s different, we actually have representation at the civic level.”

He cited the community policing centre attached to the Khalsa Diwan Society for strengthening the relationship between the police and the Sikh community, and called for a reformed version of the SLO program in schools to do the same.

“We do need to evolve our institutions and programs,” he said.

Every speaker Monday evening expressed concern for student safety. However, those opposed to the program questioned the cost of using police.

“Some folks say they feel safer with police around children. But I ask at whose expense does that safety come from?” said parent Lena Shillington.

Fear and anxiety around police for Black and Indigenous students

The school board voted in favour of cancelling the SLO program in April 2021 following community consultations conducted by Argyle Communications, outlined in this report.

While the majority of the 1,900 students, parents and members of the public consulted had neutral or positive feelings towards the program, just over half of Indigenous respondents and 60 per cent of Black respondents cited fear and anxiety around police, with some detailing negative personal experiences with officers in and out of schools.

In their report, Argyle Communications acknowledged their consultation results may skew neutral or positive because of barriers to participating facing respondents who had negative experiences of the SLO program, “including a higher risk of re-traumatization due to the nature of discussion topics.”

The report’s findings were enough for the majority of trustees on the board in spring 2021, who had previously pledged to centre the experiences of Black and Indigenous students in the review after several police killings of Black and Indigenous people across Canada and the United States, to cancel the program.

The cancellation of the Vancouver SLO program followed similar program cancellations and pauses in the Toronto, Edmonton and Hamilton school districts.

The New Westminster School district cancelled their SLO program later in 2021, although other districts in B.C. opted to maintain their programs.

The rationale for returning police officers to Vancouver public schools stated in the draft motion released Monday includes anecdotes about a rise in reported youth-involved crimes, and police reports of youth caught with bear spray, brass knuckles, machetes and imitation guns “near schools and in the community.”

No information on where and when the weapons were found, how old the youth are or whether they attended a VSB school was provided in the motion. However the VPD did respond to two events at Killarney Secondary School this past June that made the news: a student spraying other students with bear spray, and a student carrying a fake axe that led to a temporary school lockdown.

The draft memo also cites the “demonstrable lack of community consensus surrounding the discontinuance of the SLO program” as a reason for asking police to come back into schools.

ABC Vancouver won a majority of seats on both the school board and city council in October’s election. The newly founded municipal party campaigned on returning the School Liaison Officer program to the district’s schools, as well as hiring another 100 police officers and 100 nurses to respond to mental health-related crisis calls in Vancouver. Faridkot, who drafted the motion, ran under the ABC banner.

The Vancouver Police Union, which represents police officers in bargaining and is separate from the Vancouver Police Department, broke with their own tradition of not endorsing candidates by throwing their support behind ABC during the municipal election campaign.

The VPD’s current presence in schools

Prior to its cancellation in April 2021, the School Liaison Officer program saw 17 Vancouver Police Department officers — 15 constables and two staff sergeants — stationed in 17 of the city’s public high schools, as well as working with their feeder elementary schools.

Started in 1972 at Killarney Secondary to “improve relations between young people and the police,” the program eventually spread to the city’s other secondaries and their feeder elementary schools. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police served the three schools on the University of British Columbia’s endowment lands, but were not stationed in the schools.

The program was entirely funded by the Vancouver Police Department. A Memorandum of Understanding regarding the program was not signed between the school district and the VPD until 2006.

That document outlined SLO duties as: delivering safety and crime prevention information to students, staff and parents; acting as a school legal resource; talking informally with and counselling students; coaching sports teams, supervising field trips, joining clubs; investigating criminal activity in the school or involving its population; liaising between the school and the criminal justice system; and enhancing school safety and security.

In the motion cancelling the program in 2021, the school board pledged to work with the police department and RCMP on a number of fronts, including but not limited to: working together to create an emergency communications protocol, response protocol and training; creating a process for requesting school visits; and asking police continue to fund the extracurricular programs they were involved in.

In an interview with The Tyee, VPD Sgt. Steve Addison confirmed work between the district and police is ongoing.

“We work closely with them to make sure that even though we don't have school liaison officers in schools anymore, that student safety and community safety is top of mind and is paramount,” he said.

“And that's something we'll continue to do and we won't stop doing because there's a need for it.”

But the police department and school district disagree on how involved Vancouver police officers are in schools today.

Addison told The Tyee police officers still do school presentations on gang recruitment, narcotics, strangers, community safety and more. They are also still involved in student clubs and youth groups that take place on and off school grounds, including the Windermere Running Club, Here4Peers, Youth Connect, the VPD Cadet and Indigenous Cadet programs, New Kid and more.

The Tyee sent an interview request to the school district about the current relationship between the district and the Vancouver Police Department. No one was made available.

However, in an emailed statement sent to The Tyee by the district’s communications department, they contradicted Addison about VPD involvement in school presentations and clubs.

“Here4Peers is now run by VSB staff and does not include VPD staff. While some sports tournaments, like the Sanghera soccer tournament, are run in VSB schools, schools are booked by VPD through the district’s rental systems for these spaces,” the email read, adding class presentations on drugs, strangers, safety and other issues previously done by police are now led by the district’s Safe and Caring Schools Department team.

“Outside of any emergency situation (in which contact would be made through 911) staff of the district’s Safe and Caring Schools Department also provide students with support in the event of their need/wish to report non-emergency matters to the VPD (such incidents pertain to non-school incidents).”

The district meets regularly with the police department’s Youth Services Unit, the email added, “to ensure optimal safety for school communities. This includes information sharing about incidents involving youth that require involvement by both staff within the education system and the VPD, as well for training purposes (i.e. Violent Threat Risk Assessment, school lockdown training, etc.) and information regarding disposal of prohibited items.”

Seeking quantitative data about the SLO program

As part of their 2020-21 review of the School Liaison Officer program, the school board commissioned an internal report on the history and current state of the program up to 2020.

That report includes what little data has been made publicly available on the work of the SLO program: that the School Liaison Unit of the VPD made 51 presentations to over 1,250 elementary students in 2019.

The report does not contain data on how many criminal investigations, student disciplinary actions, tickets, diversions to alternative justice programs or arrests involved School Liaison Officers. Nor does it indicate how police and the school district measured “success” in the program.

The Tyee requested such data from the VPD, along with any other metrics of success in the SLO program.

“While we may be able to track some data regarding youth crime, we cannot easily tabulate data for arrests made specifically by school liaison officers over the years,” Addison told The Tyee via email at the time.

The Tyee has since filed a freedom of information request for the number of tickets, arrests, diversions into alternative justice programs and referrals to social services involving School Liaison Officers from 2011 to 2021.

The Tyee asked the VSB for how many student disciplinary decisions involved SLO officers, but was told the district does not collect that information from schools.

In a phone interview with The Tyee earlier this week, Addison reiterated data on arrests and investigations don’t tell the whole story.

“You miss out on everything else: the relationship building, the safety and security issues, crime prevention lessons, acting as a counsel to talk informally with students, working with administrators to enhance the safety and security of the school, coaching teams, joining clubs, escorting field trips, serving as a liaison between the school community in the criminal justice system,” he said.

There is very little information available on the impact of School Liaison Officer programs in British Columbia or Canada overall.

In a report commissioned by the BC Human Rights Commissioner office in 2020, then-Carleton University assistant professor Kanika Samuels-Wortley reviewed studies and reports from Canada and the United States, some of which show Black, Indigenous and disabled students were more likely to face discipline with an SLO officer in their school than not.

Speakers against returning police to schools on Monday evening cited Samuels-Wortley, the Argyle PR report and the “school-to-prison pipeline” they assert is enhanced for Indigenous and Black people, who are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, when police are stationed in schools.

Two speakers against the return of the SLO program brought up a recent statement from VPD Chief Adam Palmer, which he made in reference to a VPD report on public spending in the Downtown Eastside, as their reason for distrusting the police.

“I don’t report to any politician… I don’t report to the City of Vancouver, I don’t report to the Province of B.C. or the federal government. To me, the government of the day doesn’t matter, I’ll just call it how it is and be quite frank about it,” Palmer said during a press conference.

During the Nov. 22 meeting, Adara Beiser Shilling, a secondary student, spoke to their own experience with a school liaison officer stationed in their former school's “counselling suite” where Shilling did work.

“I watched as my fellow students came in the office looking for help, and I watched them leave when they saw the school police officer,” she said. “Just knowing he was there made them so uncomfortable that not only did they not go into the counsellor's office to ask for help when they needed it, they would be late for class because they would take detours around the school to avoid the counselling suite and the school police officer.”

Shilling, who identified themselves as middle class and white, acknowledged their identities made them more likely to have a positive relationship with cops. But the officer's presence "made me way too nervous to focus on my work," she said.

Frank Tester, a former president of the Vancouver Association for Restorative Justice, told the board putting cops back in schools would undermine the “progressive, exciting” work of VSB’s Safe and Caring Schools Department, which he is also involved in.

“There’s no evidence in the literature that a police presence in school systems in North America has done anything that affects positively” bullying, racism, violence or gang membership among students, Tester said.

“The impact of restorative justice initiatives in dealing with misdemeanours and conflict involving youth has been thoroughly researched and I can tell you that the results are truly impressive.”

Tonight the Vancouver School Board will hold a stakeholders delegation meeting to hear from union and educator associations’ representatives, before holding the final public delegation meeting on the draft motion on Thursday, Nov. 24.  [Tyee]

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