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Lori Poppe, here in Victoria B.C. on April 15, is a resident of Saanich and a mom of two kids who attend schools in the district. Lori founded an advocacy group called parents and police together.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

In Saanich, B.C., the youth arrest rate in the first four months of this academic year is more than triple last year’s rate. In the neighbouring city of Victoria, police have reported an uptick in youth involvement in organized crime.

Police chiefs, local politicians and some parents in the area say one way of reversing this trend would be for the Greater Victoria School District, which serves both communities, to resume an initiative it cancelled at the end of the past school year: its police liaison program, under which officers were a regular presence in schools.

But the program, halted after warnings from British Columbia’s Human Rights Commissioner and others that the presence of police in schools was potentially harmful to Black and Indigenous students, remains controversial. And similar debates have played out in other B.C. cities, as leaders at all levels of government have struggled to balance community safety with responding to calls for social equity.

Those who support reinstating the program say an on-site police presence offers better security at schools, and a non-threatening way for students to interact with officers, who may even participate in school programs and activities. Opponents of the program say Black and Indigenous students, and others from marginalized communities that have been overpoliced, may instead feel watched and threatened.

City councillors in Saanich, Victoria and another area municipality, Oak Bay, recently passed motions calling on their mayors to ask the chair of the school district’s board to reinstate the program with modifications.

The district’s board issued a statement late Friday defending the decision to end the program, saying it was made after more than two years of consultation. The board said it would prioritize coming up with protocols for how schools should communicate with police. The statement added that staff members monitor schools for safety concerns and call police when necessary.

Lori Poppe, a resident of Saanich and founder of Parents and Police Together, an advocacy group with more than 1,000 members, said that without a police liaison program, officers’ interactions with schools are limited to emergency response, and occasional visits by patrol officers.

“What we’re seeing is more children are getting arrested,” she said.

With police attached to schools, she argued, some of those arrests could instead be informal interactions between students and officers. “I always think about how many of those children or students would have been able to have diversion,” she said.

She added that getting to know a school liaison officer can also give a student an easy way to report a crime, such as a sexual assault.

In a 2022 letter to B.C. school board trustees, the province’s Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, called for an end to such programs across the province, saying their benefits were unproven. She urged school districts to cancel the programs “out of respect for the rights of our students.” She added that districts that choose to keep officers in schools should produce independent evidence of a need for them “that cannot be met through civilian alternatives,” and explain the actions they are taking to address critics’ concerns.

In an interview, Ms. Govender said some evidence from the United States indicates that the presence of officers can have a harmful impact on racialized students, particularly those who are Black or Indigenous. She said research shows that the number of disciplinary proceedings and other actions against racialized youth rises when there are liaison officers in schools.

“People say to me, ‘Well, how do you know that’s applicable here?’ And I don’t. That’s exactly why I’m calling for evidence,” she said. She added that the programs shouldn’t be reinstated until such evidence emerges, and she called on the provincial government to fund research in this area. The B.C. Ministry of Education said in a statement that the government has no plans to do this.

The Greater Victoria School District’s board voted unanimously to discontinue its liaison program in June, 2023. By this point, the program had been waning for several years. Police in Saanich, the largest municipality in Greater Victoria, still had a presence in many schools, but police in the city of Victoria hadn’t had officers assigned to specific schools since 2018. (The local police force had still been routinely sending officers for visits and presentations.)

Greater Victoria was not the first school district in the province to end its program. In 2021, the Vancouver School Board also voted to remove police from its schools, after a third-party report raised concerns about discrimination. In the same year, the school board in New Westminster cancelled its long-standing liaison officer program.

But Vancouver has recently reversed its decision. Ken Sim won the city’s 2022 mayoral election on a platform that included reinstating the program. Vancouver police returned to the city’s schools last fall under a revised program that includes cultural awareness training for officers, more diverse hiring, casual uniforms and smaller, less exposed firearms.

In Victoria, police Chief Del Manak has become increasingly vocal about what he says are the drawbacks of removing police from schools. He said in a February statement that the role officers played in schools has not been filled by social workers, counsellors or mental health workers.

Chief Manak added that gangs have recruited students from Greater Victoria high schools and middle schools to traffic drugs and vaping products, which are illegal for youth to possess.

He said most schools in the Greater Victoria area have students involved in these gang-initiated trafficking schemes. In January, he added, the Victoria Police Department made its first arrest of someone suspected of recruiting youth at schools into gang activity.

The force’s spokesperson, Cheryl Major, said Victoria now has seven active organized street gangs, which she said is more than police there have observed before.

Saanich Police Chief Dean Duthie said in a statement that removing police has exposed students to “new risks and vulnerabilities.”

According to the Saanich Police Department, the youth arrest rate in the municipality increased from 5 per cent of all arrests in the 2022-23 school year to 17 per cent in the first five months of the 2023-24 school year. In those five months, according to the department, there were 37 youth arrests, compared with 24 in the entire past school year.

Ian Rowe, vice-chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, said parents are still divided over Vancouver’s police liaison program, months after it was reintroduced. He said some parents are not convinced that permanently stationing officers in schools is the best or only way to provide police support.

”I think one of the problems that we saw in Vancouver in the year when police were not in schools was that there was no process to allow for quick ongoing access to police in appropriate circumstances, which would be different than permanently stationing a police officer on-site who develops notes on different kids,” he said.

“We also recognize, from communities who feel overpoliced and watched, that having constant surveillance of their children is not a good situation.”

Ilda Turcotte, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said the province should hire more counsellors and social workers, rather than bring police back into schools. The current ratio is one counsellor for every 600 students, she added.

Police, she said, were providing coaching and other social services.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate for a police officer to come and offer some of those services,” she said. “We feel that it would be better under a health care professional, or social services professionals or educators.”

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