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British Columbia’s second-largest school board is ending a five-decade arrangement with the Vancouver Police Department that has seen uniformed officers embedded in schools.

The decision follows a nearly year-long debate that has persisted over the value of having dedicated police stationed at each of the city’s 17 high schools and officers from a nearby RCMP detachment walking the halls at three schools by the University of British Columbia.

The police and supporters of the program say the officers help maintain safety and build positive relationships with the community, while critics of the program – including Black, Indigenous and other students of colour – say having officers on site affected students’ mental health and well-being by perpetuating the systemic racism some have encountered during interactions with law enforcement.

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Vancouver School Board trustees voted 8-1 Monday evening to end the school liaison officer program at the end of the school year in June. On Tuesday, the school board in nearby New Westminster voted to immediately scrap that district’s child and youth liaison officer program owing to concerns that armed officers’ presence could be disturbing to racialized or LGBTQ youth.

The Vancouver trustees’ decision was informed by a recent review of the program by consulting firm Argyle PR that included input from more than 1,900 community members – just more than half of which were current or former students.

Among students, 58 per cent of respondents said they were somewhat or very familiar with the program, with a little more than half saying they agreed it helped to keep schools safe. But when the responses were further broken down, almost two-thirds of all Black students disagreed with that assessment, followed by a third of the Indigenous students surveyed.

“As a Black student, when the first thing I see when I walk into school in the morning is an armed police officer, it automatically gives me the message that ‘You aren’t really welcome here, and we’re here to protect the white students from your disruptive behavior so they can continue to learn in a safe environment,’ ” one student stated in the review’s final report.

The Toronto District School Board cancelled a similar program in 2017, despite a survey that showed a majority of students had an overall positive impression of officers in the schools. However, some students said they felt intimidated, targeted and uncomfortable with the police presence. The decision followed months of pressure from several advocacy groups, comprised of parents, community members and educators, calling for an end to the program.

Vancouver trustee Jennifer Reddy said she cast the lone vote against the motion because she felt the board’s decision left the door open to further collaboration with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). She questioned whether the money spent on keeping officers in schools could instead be redirected to other proposals aimed at fighting the harms of systemic racism and poverty, through initiatives such as free meal programs.

“Those are the issues that we need to address, and I don’t see police being a part of that,” she said in an interview.

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The board has also proposed a “new relationship” with police to develop “trauma-informed approaches to working with children and youth.”

In a statement, the VPD called the cancellation of the program “political,” with individual officers taking to social media to promote their work in schools co-ordinating student clubs and other programs.

In the statement on Tuesday, Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson said the program has long helped divert youth from the criminal justice system.

“This decision leaves a big gap in relationship-building between officers, students and staff and also decreases safety for youth and staff in schools,” she said. “In addition, the decision impacts the direct interaction and mentorship police provide to keep youth safe – like keeping them away from gangs and educating them on staying safe online.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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