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Municipal Politics

The Vancouver School Board Votes Cops Back into Schools

A divisive motion calling to work with the VPD to create a new School Liaison Officer program has passed.

Katie Hyslop 30 Nov

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

Accusing the previous board of “walking away” from the School Liaison Officer program instead of reforming it, on Monday the current Vancouver School Board voted five to four in favour of a motion that begins the process of returning police officers to Vancouver public schools.

Board vice-chair Preeti Faridkot defended the motion she wrote, which calls on the board to draft a letter to the Vancouver Police Department asking them to work with the board on a new SLO program. She also acknowledged what critics had been saying for over a week.

“I understand that police do not belong in schools,” Faridkot said. But neither do crime, drugs or gangs, she added.

Systemic racism in the criminal justice system can’t be beaten by cancelling programs like the School Liaison Officer program, she said.

“Institutions will continue to exist. So instead of creating separation and instead of dividing our communities, let’s try to build bridges and understanding to foster positive relationship between communities and other institutions,” Faridkot said.

For nearly 50 years the SLO program saw 17 Vancouver police officers posted to 17 of the district’s secondary schools and working with their feeder elementary schools, before it was cancelled by the board in 2021.

Monday’s decision comes after a 2021 review of the SLO program conducted by the previous school board, which included a two-and-a-half-week community consultation that found the overall majority of respondents had neutral or positive views of police in schools.

But 60 per cent of Black respondents and half of Indigenous respondents viewed the program negatively, citing personal or community experience with SLOs or police outside of schools.

The new school board, elected in October, includes four members of ABC. Also known as A Better City Vancouver, the party campaigned on returning SLOs, as well as hiring 100 police officers and 100 nurses.

Christopher Richardson, who ran with ABC until he was ejected from the party during the campaign, was also elected to the board and has been a special traffic constable with the VPD for over 40 years. He did not recuse himself from Monday’s vote.

Last week the Vancouver School Board heard from roughly 75 speakers about the SLO program, including Black and Indigenous people and their allies who spoke out against the lack of evidence supporting the program and the existing overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system.

Four trustees — Suzie Mah from COPE; Janet Fraser and Lois Chan-Pedley from the Greens; and Jennifer Reddy from OneCity — voted against the program.

Their reasons included public testimonials against the program; a lack of change in VPD culture since 2021; and the board’s refusal to either send the motion to a sub-committee for further discussion with stakeholders — the normal process with controversial motions — or wait for students to be consulted about the program by the Vancouver District Students' Council.

Reddy said ignoring the wishes of students uncomfortable with police and prioritizing those who benefit shows the board does not respect children’s rights.

“I could also name the fact that we don’t dare cave to the political pressure to invite an organization, whose conduct was under investigation for human rights violations, to come here and work with our students,” Reddy said.

ABC trustees and Richardson also voted together to defeat an amendment to seek legal advice for possible future human rights complaints before putting cops back in schools.

Last week B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender sent a letter to all B.C. school district trustees, calling on them to cancel their districts’ SLO programs due to lack of evidence of benefits, and the existence of evidence the program is unsafe for Black, Indigenous and disabled people.

But at Monday’s board meeting Faridkot cited SLO program statistics from 2015 to 2019 that she believed supported the program.

During that time, she said, SLOs recorded 7,025 encounters with youth in the city’s public and private schools. Twenty-seven youth were charged with a criminal offence, six of whom later had their charges dropped by Crown council.

“In essence this means that only 0.29 per cent of youth were formally charged with a crime, and only 21 individuals over the span of five years formally entered the criminal justice system because of the SLO program,” Faridkot said.

The Tyee previously sought such data from the Vancouver Police Department, including filing a freedom of information request that has yet to be fulfilled. At the time The Tyee requested this information, VPD communications responded that data like arrests and student discipline involving SLOs isn’t useful because it did not encompass the positive aspects of the program, and would be difficult to obtain.

Faridkot noted three Indigenous youth and two Black youth were among the 21 charged with crimes by SLOs, representing 14 and 9.5 per cent of all students charged, respectively.

The Vancouver School Board only breaks down demographics by race for Indigenous students, who make up just four per cent of the district’s nearly 50,000 students. According to Statistics Canada, only one per cent of Vancouver’s population is Black.

Despite the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous students among those charged, Faridkot said the numbers vindicate the SLO program.

“Given this information, it simply cannot be said that the VPD SLO program is complicit in any level of racial profiling, and on that basis alone the removal of the popular and successful program from Vancouver schools would not be justified,” she said.

Past complaints about School Liaison Officers by Black and Indigenous people have included allegations of harassment, racism, physical assault and intimidation, as well as police’s association with child welfare authorities, which is not captured by arrest data.

Trustee Alfred Chien, another ABC trustee, noted Vancouver voters elected ABC majorities to the school board and city council because they supported the party’s pledge to return SLOs to schools and hire 100 more police officers. Voter turnout was just 36 per cent.

Of those who opposed police in schools, Chien said, “The best thing is to educate them: police are their friends, not their enemy.”

A letter released by the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council after the motion passed says that the group is seeking a legal opinion on whether the district violated their rights with a rushed consultation process.

“We urge you to withdraw this highly contentious motion and to seek collaboration within the committee structures to start discussions, in which DPAC would be an active participant to seek a new and redefined relationship with the VPD and RCMP,” the letter reads in part.

‘If we had SLOs in the school, that would have been headed off at the pass’

In an interview with The Tyee on Nov. 24, VPD Chief Adam Palmer said he welcomed a return of the School Liaison Officer program. The return of the program would not impact the recent police budget as they would use officers already on staff, he said.

“The devil’s in the details, of course, and we would work with the school board and make sure that it's something that they want and how they envision it and how we envision it,” Palmer said.

The Tyee also asked Palmer what the department’s metrics of success were for the former program and how VPD measured them.

Palmer did not answer the question directly. Instead, he raised concerns he said he’d heard from youth officers that not having police in schools means when a school does get the police involved in an issue with students, those officers aren’t familiar with the school like an SLO officer would be.

“There's more of a disconnect,” he said. “There's a higher likelihood that kid's going to end up in the criminal justice system, as opposed to in the previous way, there'd be alternate measures to deal with that kid before they would have to go to the justice system.”

Asked if youth crime levels have changed since the SLO program was cancelled compared to when police were in public schools, Palmer said it was not possible to tie all youth crimes to a school.

“But in actual schools, some of the problems we're seeing are things that our youth officers are saying, ‘If we would have had SLOs in the school, that would have been headed off at the pass, and it wouldn't be turning into this big investigation,’” Palmer said.

Human Rights Commissioner Govender’s Nov. 24 letter to B.C. school trustees called for the cancellation of all School Liaison Officer programs “unless and until they can demonstrate an evidence-based need for them that cannot be met through other services.”

In her letter Govender referred to the SLO research paper her office commissioned, which was published last year.

Conducted by Kanika Samuels-Wortley, then an associate professor in the criminology and criminal justice department at Carleton University, the paper found very little peer-reviewed research conducted on SLO programs in Canada, and none that focused on the impacts of SLOs on marginalized students.

Some American research, however, showed introducing police into schools coincides with an increase in discipline for Black students and disabled students, while marginalized students in general reported feeling unsafe around police at school.

There was no evidence police presence made schools any safer for students, the report concluded, although some evidence showed such programs made some parents and educators feel safer.

Asked how he would respond to criticisms about lack of evidence police officers in schools increases student safety, VPD Chief Palmer told The Tyee that’s not what they’re hearing.

“What we're hearing from administrators — not just the board, the elected body that changes every four years, but from the actual administrators, from the principals, the people working in the schools, we had really strong support,” he said, acknowledging some people don’t support police in schools and he respects their position.

“And really strong support from parents and kids.”

‘If you want true reconciliation, you need to deconstruct this whole system’

The Vancouver School Board heard directly from school administrators, teachers and support staff last week. Representatives from the Vancouver Association of Secondary School Administrators, and the Vancouver Elementary Principals and Vice-Principals Association, spoke in favour of cops in schools.

Kal Gill, a secondary school principal who spoke on behalf of the Vancouver Association of Secondary School Administrators, said the organization supports the return of a “revised and reimagined” SLO program to schools.

“We welcome the opportunity to be part of the discussion to reimagine the program with a focus on reconciliation, equity, student achievement, well-being and belonging,” Gill said.

Echoing Palmer’s position, he added that without SLOs, administrators are seeing more students “entangled” in the justice system.

“Schools and SLOs worked co-operatively in a preventative manner whenever possible to support the interest of students involved, engaged in communication with families, and support the legal rights of youth,” he said.

CUPE Local 15, which represents education assistants, youth and family workers, administrative assistants and other education support workers in the district, also wants cops back in schools.

Member Chris Brown delivered a message from union president Warren Williams, who identified himself as a person of colour and cited an increase in violence from students directed at their members, as well as teachers, as reason to return cops to schools.

“We are optimistic about a revised SLO program, which should include Safe and Caring Schools staff,” Brown said, referring to a department the district created after the SLO program was cancelled.

But the two teachers’ union locals spoke against cops in schools, citing everything from the creation of police in Canada to control Indigenous and Black communities; their compliance in residential schools and the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in government care; ongoing police violence against Black and Indigenous people; and concern over a board consultation process where the motion was not released until just hours before the public spoke to it last week.

“We may well be confronted with the proposition that the best that the VPD can do in terms of their efforts to restore the program to our schools, will be to enact a model which will still be a model that is traumatizing for some of our most vulnerable youth,” said Terry Stanway, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers' Association.

Marjorie Dumont, vice-president of the Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators’ Society, who is Gitsxan and Wet'suwet'en, recounted the RCMP removing her great-grandparents and their seven children from their land by gunpoint, forced to walk the 64 kilometres from Houston to Smithers, B.C.

“Two-thirds of our Indigenous families live in urban settings. These are students with blood memory of this history, who are in this district. Police have played a vital role in perpetuating cultural genocide and the genocide of Indigenous people,” she said.

“If you want true reconciliation, you need to deconstruct this whole system. We must decolonize.”  [Tyee]

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