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Police Are Returning to Schools. Why Are We Doing This?

We’re supposed to feel safer now. Somehow, I don’t.

Harrison Mooney 30 Nov 2023The Tyee

Harrison Mooney is an award-winning author and journalist from Abbotsford, B.C. Mooney was recently awarded the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for his debut memoir, Invisible Boy.

In a letter to families this month, I was told that my daughter’s school would be welcoming the police.

I was horrified.

My eldest has just started kindergarten, and I had hoped she would avoid her first police encounter for a good long while. Fortunately, there was no emergency, our principal assured the school community in a newsletter emailed Nov. 16. The Vancouver Police Department was simply welcome at the school again as a matter of Vancouver School Board policy. The board voted last November to reinstate the school liaison officer program for the 2023-24 school year.

I remained horrified, and the VSB form letter, which promised a revised version of the program they scrapped two years back, did little to assuage my concerns.

“Their goal is to be a supportive and positive presence,” the newsletter, signed by the principal, said. “They are of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds and have received specialized training to excel in this unique role. Officers will wear casual uniforms, utilize unmarked vehicles and carry less visible firearms.”

Forgive me for failing to be impressed by a 21 Jump Street-style “How do you do, fellow kids” approach that would see officers dressed down in VPD-branded athletic wear, or by a promise to bring in concealed weapons only.

What are we talking about here? Do ankle guns count as concealed weapons? And maybe this is out of line, but I actually don’t want anybody sneaking firearms into my kid’s kindergarten, even police. And considering that police shootings in Vancouver are currently at a 15-year high, or that British Columbia currently has the highest rate of officer-involved shootings in Canada, or that officers shot and killed a teenager at the park by my house just this summer, perhaps especially not police.

The VPD claimed its previous SLOs underwent specialized training, but that was proven false by Katie Hyslop in The Tyee.

The results of Hyslop’s freedom of information request, published in January 2023, found that the VPD “did not provide officers with any special training before working with students,” despite frequent mention of specialized training for SLOs in public discussions of the program.

So the claim that the new group of incoming officers have received specialized training, which appeared in last week’s letter home to parents, signed by each principal in the district, is hard to take at face value.

“We understand that some people may not be comfortable with police at school,” our newsletter read. “Please let us know if you or your child has specific needs or considerations.”

My child and I are Black, and while I suppose that this no longer qualifies as a “specific need or consideration,” I remember the halcyon days of three summers ago when it did. When the voices of racialized people mattered enough for this issue to get a review, and the majority of Black and Indigenous people surveyed felt negatively about the SLO program and called for it to be changed or cancelled altogether.

This was way back in 2020, the summer of the George Floyd protests, when police killings, which never stopped or even slowed, were suddenly news. Granted, that was happening in Minneapolis, but as we localized the story, pivoting to racialized voices closer to home, we finally had cause to engage with concerns over the impact that police presence in schools had on the mental and physical well-being of our students, especially students of colour.

Please remember that this was the context of that conversation, a moment when Black lives were said to have mattered, before it was put to an end, and a conscious decision was made to recentre white voices instead.

The remnants of this moment are all over the place. Not far from my house in East Vancouver is a makeshift public art installation called the Rock Project. It’s a front lawn arrangement with stones painted black and the name of a Black person killed by police on each one, like a graveyard. “Know Their Names,” one rock says.

The project, which speaks to the time some people had on their hands during the shutdowns of the early pandemic, has always been marked by some serious cognitive dissonance: the “Black Lives Matter” and “Indigenous Lives Matter” rocks are stationed right next to the rocks with the national symbols of Canada and the United States.

Three years after its initial installation, the Rock Project still stands — and I wonder for what. Nothing has changed. No new names have been added. The moment has passed. Civic and school board elections rebuked every gain that we made, and now, the police have returned to our schools.

Why, though? There remains no evidence that SLOs make students safer, or even make them feel safer, and this is in spite of a written request from Kasari Govender, the B.C. human rights commissioner, to please, for our children’s sake, find some.

In a November 2022 letter to the BC School Trustees Association, Govender called on trustees to cancel all SLOs “unless and until they can demonstrate an evidence-based need for them that cannot be met through other services.”

This request, like the research concluding that SLOs make marginalized students feel less safe at school, contributing to a sense of criminalization and surveillance, has been thoroughly disregarded, even though no one can offer a single, empirical reason to do so.

Admittedly, the VPD did try to claim there’s been an uptick in calls to the police department from Vancouver schools. But this claim featured data from 2022, when calls for service indeed saw an annual increase of 16 per cent, failing to note that such calls remain way below where they were in 2020.

Meanwhile, nobody mentioned that police calls are guaranteed to increase if there aren’t any officers already on site. So what was the point of this argument? What is the point of this program at all?

The point is to hoodwink us into letting their officers back into schools, to recover the ground lost three years ago, when we assessed the role police play in society and tried to claw back the free rein they’d been given.

It didn’t work, and now I find myself powerless to prevent my kids from learning what SLOs really teach. Which is to become inured to a constant police presence, everywhere, all of the time. And to mistakenly see the VPD as a friendly entity just because the officer at their school says hi in the hallway sometimes.

We’re supposed to feel safer now. Somehow, I don’t.

Speaking to Hyslop as they reported a Tyee story on the vote that returned police officers to public schools last November, OneCity school trustee Jennifer Reddy said the board does not respect children’s rights in ignoring the wishes of students uncomfortable with police and prioritizing those who benefit.

“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 told Hyslop at the time.

Our job as a school community is to safeguard our children. Yet we’ve allowed a clear and present danger to regroup and put itself back into all of our schools, including my kid’s kindergarten.

We’ve done this in spite of a promise to listen to voices like mine, who continue to say that the SLO program is harmful in practice and useless, in essence.

In a letter to families this month, I was told that my daughter’s school doesn’t care about Black people.

I was horrified.  [Tyee]

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