‘We’re disturbed’: Not everyone is welcoming police officers back to Vancouver schools

Click to play video: 'Vancouver police school liaison officer program restarts'
Vancouver police school liaison officer program restarts
WATCH: The controversial Vancouver police school liason officer program is restarting with the return to class next week, but critics say the underlying issues that led to the program's cancellation in 2021 haven't gone away. Kamil Karamali reports – Sep 1, 2023

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) may be prepared to “welcome” police officers back into schools next week, but it’s not a sentiment that’s shared by all.

On Thursday, the VSB held a press conference to reiterate its commitment to creating “safe, welcoming and inclusive spaces” for its learners, and said the new “reimagined” school liaison officer (SLO) program will advance school safety.

It also presented a new look for the SLOs that includes casual polo shirts, unmarked police vehicles and more discreet firearms.

Even with the lighter visual touch, however, the decision to bring police back into schools has been vigorously opposed by members of the Vancouver Police Department’s African Descent Advisory Committee. Members Sadie Kuehn and Parker Johnson said they’re concerned about potential harm to Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer, and disabled students.

“The (new look) doesn’t address the core issues of having young people — all young people — feel safe,” Kuehn, a former school trustee, told Global News on Friday.

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“If we have been in situations where we have had negative experiences, the fact that the person is in plain clothes or uniforms does not make a major difference.”

Click to play video: 'Vancouver school board to re-instate controversial school liaison officer program'
Vancouver school board to re-instate controversial school liaison officer program

In April 2021, trustees voted to eliminate the longstanding but controversial SLO program, following an independent review by Argyle Communications. It found that while 61 per cent of students surveyed felt officers added a sense of safety to their schools, the number dropped to 47 per cent among Indigenous respondents and 15 per cent among Black respondents.

Last year, however, newly-elected trustees narrowly voted to restore the program with a “reimagined” vision that includes more diverse officers on a team of 15 constables. SLOs would also engage in additional school-based training with the Vancouver School District, as well as cultural awareness and restorative justice training.

“We’re disturbed, actually, that the reasonably recently-elected school trustees, which is a diverse group of folks, did not listen to community and agree to hold off on any of these actions until a total review was done,” Kuehn said.

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Click to play video: 'Vancouver School Board debates return of police liaison officers in schools'
Vancouver School Board debates return of police liaison officers in schools

For its part, the VPD has said it consulted with various committees and community groups about the renewed SLO program, including Kuehn and Johnson’s committee, as well as the school board’s Equity Anti-Racism and Non-Discrimination Working Group. The police force has recognized not all supported the initiative.

Johnson said the committee doesn’t feel its feedback was taken seriously, nor has the VSB or VPD responded to calls for additional research on the benefits of police in schools or a review of the practices put in place when the last SLO program ended.

“There’s been no assessment. It seemed more like a political decision than a decision in care of children, in care of education and in support of the overall educational community,” Johnson said Friday.

“All of the research that’s been out there regarding police in schools has shown that there’s no educational value for police schools and there’s no substantive safety value for police in schools.”

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Last November, B.C.’s human rights commissioner penned a letter to the B.C. School Trustees Association urging an end to SLOs in all schools, “unless and until they can demonstrate an evidence-based need for them that cannot be met through other services.”

In the letter, Kasari Govender cited a lack of research on whether SLO programs make schools safer and a lack of focus on the experience of marginalized students. She said the VSB in particular did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that “tweaks to the SLO construct will be sufficient to address community concerns of harm and discrimination.”

Click to play video: 'VicPD chief against proposal to end school police liaison program'
VicPD chief against proposal to end school police liaison program

In June, a member of the Vancouver Police Board stepped down over the decision to bring SLOs back, claiming it flew in the face of board commitments to anti-racism and decolonization and was made through a tainted consultation process.

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“Here we are, two years later, and we’ve stifled the debate on this, we’ve lied to the African Descent Advisory Committee — I feel lied to — we didn’t have a vote on this as a policy matter, we didn’t consider what we as a board were going to do if our advisory committee said ‘No,'” Rachel Roy said at the June 15 meeting.

She further claimed the police board has never held a formal vote on bringing police officers back into Vancouver schools.

Click to play video: 'Safety for Kids Campaign'
Safety for Kids Campaign

According to the VSB, the new SLOs will be housed at high schools and be available to all students and family members for support and guidance. They will also make appearances at school clubs, events, and activities, as well as elementary schools.

“We have gathered secondary principals and SLOs to provide everyone with details about the reimagined program and a chance to begin forming relationships with one another,” Supt. Helen MacGregor said Thursday.

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“Secondary school administrators have been in contact with their staff and students this afternoon with information to help support the transition of those into their school communities.”

At that press conference, Fiona Wilson, deputy chief of investigations for the VPD, called the program “absolutely critical” and praised the changes that were made to address the concerns.

“The school liaison officers — it’s one of the few things that we’re still able to do in policing where we can build relationships early and have a positive influence on kids and youth,” Wilson explained.

“When I think of some of the extraordinary stories I’ve heard over the years … there’s just nothing that can convince me that it’s not a program that we really should be supporting.”

The liaison officer program helps “humanize” police, she added, helping young people get to know them for the first time in a positive light, rather than when they’re “having the worst day of their life, which so often the case.”

Click to play video: 'B.C  schools urged to rethink halt to police liaison program amid rising gang violence'
B.C schools urged to rethink halt to police liaison program amid rising gang violence

Meanwhile, Kuehn said she would like to see the police board and police force heed what communities are telling them they need in order to create a “safer society.”

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“We demand that they review this matter and stop this before it goes much further … we don’t want more and more young people to be damaged in a system that honestly, we are trying to support. The idea should be protecting them.”

Johnson said the resources deployed into the SLO program could go to “better things,” like counselling or other school safety initiatives.

“Police are not an answer to safety. Community is an answer to safety,” he said.

He likened having police in schools to using a hammer in a situation that doesn’t require one.

“You can have a teacher or an administrator, or staff intervene if things arise with students. An armed officer is not necessary to deal with student interventions,” he explained.

“I would encourage them to step back from this decision and to, at the very least, reconsider what’s going on. Do an assessment of the program that’s been put in place.”

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