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Vancouver trustees won’t suspend police school liaison program

But nine-member board unanimous in need for review of programs operated by VPD and RCMP
Vancouver trustees were unanimous Monday in their vote to have a review conducted of the police school liaison programs, but the review will not require suspension of the programs.

A police-run program that has placed officers in Vancouver schools since 1972 will not be required to shut down while a review is conducted of the service it provides – or doesn’t provide – to students and staff in the district.

School trustees voted 6-3 Monday against suspending the school liaison officer programs in schools operated by the Vancouver Police Department and three others overseen by the RCMP in the University Endowment Lands.

The vote was in contrast to a separate unanimous decision to hire an independent consultant to review the school liaison officer programs.

That decision was based on dozens of emails sent to trustees from students, parents and educators concerned about the presence of uniformed officers with guns in schools and the effect on black, Indigenous and other racialized students.

Trustees also received “a wave” of emails from students, counsellors and educators in support of the program, which has a long history of connecting officers with students and police-run programs and activities outside schools.

In her reasons for calling for a review, trustee Lois Chan-Pedley pointed to recent events in Canada and in the United States where Black and Indigenous people were either injured or killed in incidents involving police.

Chan-Pedley, who was one of three trustees who voted to suspend the program during a review, said there has been a lot of good public debate about the role of police in society, but wanted to extend that to an examination of the role of officers in schools.

The review’s focus will be on the school liaison programs but include an examination of police participation at school events and activities.

“We need to have a good review and engagement with experts and, most importantly, with the students in the communities that are in this district,” she said. “I hope that this review will shed some light on issues of duty, of safety, of perceptions of safety and what aspects of education and student well-being can and should be carried out by the police force.”

Trustee Fraser Ballantyne, a former school principal in the district, argued against suspending the program during the review, saying it would be irresponsible and leave those students vulnerable who depend on the officers.

Ballantyne shared how officers helped stop some female students from being recruited into prostitution when he served as a principal.

“To take that support away for any amount of time is extremely disturbing to me,” he said. “That means to me that some people don’t really understand the role of the [school liaison officers].”

Added Ballantyne: “The proactive and preventative work that they have done in schools is unprecedented. There’s no other program in Canada that is like the Vancouver Police Department [school liaison officer] program. If we don’t have that structure still in our schools, what the heck are we going to do? Who is going to look after the infrastructure of safety of the students?”

Ballantyne also made a comment about Caucasian students that has since been met with outrage on social media, with some asking for his resignation.

“The Caucasian kids are actually the visible minority,” he said.  “So when we get a sense from the population of our secondary schools and elementary schools, I think it’s really important to hear what they have to say about it and their feelings of the relationships that have been developed over the years. I think a number of trustees will be very surprised at the value of what their connectedness is to this program.”

Trustee Barb Parrott argued nurses and social workers should be doing the work of police officers in schools. The district should hire more counsellors, too, said Parrott, who also voted to suspend the program during the review.

“I think that the money that is saved from not having police officers do that work — to having them completely committed to safety issues and emergency issues — would be better spent on having professionals, social workers, nurses, counsellors, drug addiction therapists,” she said.

The school liaison program is funded by the police department and RCMP, whereas funding for nurses and social workers would likely have to come from the provincial government.

Trustee Estrellita Gonzalez said a review needs to be done because of the good points made on both sides of the argument for the future of the school liaison program.

“I’m not attached to either outcome because I really want what’s best for Vancouver students, but it means we actually have to hear from Vancouver students,” she said. “We’ve received tons of emails from people against the [school liaison program], but honestly it appears very few of them were actually from [Vancouver school board] students. I want to hear from Vancouver school board students, and I want to hear from Black students and Indigenous students, specifically.”

Added Gonzalez: “I look at the VPD – it’s not the RCMP, although I know we have an alliance with them for our UBC schools. But Vancouver is not Toronto. It’s also not the U.S.A. We need to have our own Vancouver lens on this program and what is going on in our city.”

In 2017, Toronto removed police officers from schools. It was a point Changich Baboth, a 17-year-old Lord Byng student, made in a presentation June 10 to a Vancouver school board committee.

Baboth requested Vancouver do the same.

“As an African-Canadian teen I have a great fear of the police, as many Black and Indigenous youth do,” Baboth wrote in her presentation. “I have no trust in police to keep me safe when I felt unsafe at Lord Byng.”

Added Baboth: ‘It’s clear you guys are still not valuing and listening to Black and Indigenous voices. Start using your privilege for good by uplifting and protecting Black and Indigenous students.”

Trustee Janet Fraser, the board’s chairperson, drafted the motion with Parrott and Chan-Pedley to call for the review of the program.

The motion included a clause to suspend the program, but Fraser ended up voting against that recommendation, saying she struggled with feedback from people on both sides of the argument.

“Clearly, there are students who do not feel safe in our schools because of the presence of police officers,” she said. “But we’re also getting feedback from students, from parents, from staff members about the impact of suddenly removing these supports from students.”

Sgt. Ralph Kaisers, president of the Vancouver Police Union, said in an email Tuesday that he was glad trustees voted not to suspend the program.

“Happy to see that the motion to cancel the [school liaison] program has been delayed pending a review of the program,” Kaisers said.  “This is a great program and I have confidence that a proper review will show that it should remain as part of the school program.”

The board will now begin the process to hire a consultant to review the school liaison program but no timeline has been set when the review will be completed. No cost estimate was provided at Monday’s meeting.