As protestors rallied in North American cities against the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police—and police brutality and racism in general—last Thursday (June 4), the Burnaby school district tweeted that it loved (via a smiley-face, heart-eyed emoji) a Burnaby police video of an armed police officer with a bulletproof vest, welcoming kids back to school.
Oof. Read the room, folks.
It was a strikingly tone-deaf and poorly timed tweet that drew backlash on social media, but it didn’t stop there. The following day, the district posted a since-deleted five-tweet statement from board chair Gary Wong defending the initial tweet and denouncing racism.
The Wong statement was later deleted and replaced with a three-tweet post that concluded with an apology stating: “The Burnaby School District acknowledges and apologizes for any harm done to members of our community by the retweet of a video from the Burnaby RCMP. Positive intentions notwithstanding, we recognize the timing of this retweet was wrong and it has been deleted.”
This Monday (June 8), a Burnaby newspaper published a letter from a black student named Haleluya Hailu who said that in all her years in the Burnaby school system, “I haven't gone a day without dealing with some form of racism. RCMP school liaison officials only contribute to that.”
Her letter concluded with a statement that decision makers need to pay attention to: “During these uncertain times, I can say I've not been happy. As a black woman, as a student and, at the end of the day, just a person. Going back to my half-empty classrooms, the last thing I want to see is a RCMP officer staring back at me If you feel reassured by a badge and a gun, that is a privilege that I wish I could have.”
A bigger debate
Tone deafness of the Burnaby school district aside, we’re long overdue for a public discussion about whether armed, uniformed police officers belong in our public schools, especially if they make students like Hailu feel unsafe.
The Vancouver School Board (VSB) and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) have a longstanding partnership through the VPD’s school-liaison-officer (SLO) program, going back almost 50 years. SLOs work with schools on crime-prevention and safety programs, and some have offices in high schools and are a regular presence in hallways and at school events.
The SLOs tend to be popular with students, often coaching teams and building supportive relationships with students. I’ve met several SLOs and have been consistently impressed with the positive rapport they have with students and their commitment to supporting children and youth.
When I chaired the VSB in 2009, what could have been a horrendous tragedy was averted when students at Vancouver’s Templeton Secondary School told their SLO they were worried about a classmate who had posted a hit list of 117 students and staff members and had amassed a small arsenal of deadly weapons and ammunition, including a shotgun, machete, collapsible metal batons, and combat knives.
The VPD was able to arrest the troubled student and seize his weapons before anyone was hurt.
Would those students have reported their concerns if they didn’t have a relationship with their SLO? Maybe. Maybe not.
I’ve seen the SLO program benefit students in other ways. I recall a case of two elementary kids taking black markers to the exterior of their school and writing awful, libelous things about a teacher and drawing huge penises on the school walls in the covered play area where primary students entered the building.
The SLO worked with the school and the perpetrators’ parents on a restorative response, which made the students take responsibility for their actions in a confidential process that made them understand the harm they caused and gave them an opportunity to makes amends for their actions. It was age-appropriate and impressive, with an apparently positive outcome for all.
Then what’s the problem?
As a school trustee, I believed it was my job to ensure every student felt safe, welcome, and supported at school. I learned that not all students do, and that sometimes we need to step out of own identities and consider how others experience things we may believe are benign.
We heard that trans students often felt unsafe and uncomfortable at school, so we updated our policies to be clearer about how they would be supported, right down to providing all-genders washrooms in every school.
What is glaringly clear is that many trans, black, Indigenous, and other racialized people don’t feel safe around police officers, especially when they’re wearing uniforms and bulletproof vests and carrying guns and batons.
If that’s the case for students in our schools, and even if it’s only a small proportion of them, we need to do something it.
A better way
In 2017, the Toronto District School Board voted to permanently end their “school resource officer” program after releasing a report that said the program made some students feel intimidated or uncomfortable.
Across North America, there are calls to defund police departments and redirect that money to community resources that support those who are struggling and finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.
What if we took the funds that are spent in B.C. on putting armed police officers in schools and spent more on mental health and other supports for students? What if we increased school-district funding at the same rate police budgets have been increasing?
I did some math to look at how much the VPD budget increased during the past dozen years, compared with how much the Vancouver School Board budget increased. I expected a wide gap, but—holy smokes!—it’s staggering. The VPD’s budget has increased by almost 90 percent since 2008, while VSB’s funding grants from the provincial government increased by about five per cent over the same period. There’s something wrong with this picture, folks.
Imagine what the school board could do if we redirected some of the police-funding increases to hiring more youth psychologists and counsellors and ensuring every student gets timely access to whatever supports they need to succeed. I guarantee fewer students would become adults who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
How can we take what works about SLO programs and deliver it in a way that makes all students feel safe? Can we do this in a manner that provides even more benefits for students without making any of them feel unsafe or uncomfortable at school?
Let students lead the way
I don’t have the answers, but I know who does: students. Start by surveying them on how they’re affected by police in their schools and what works for them and what doesn’t. Disaggregate data to compare how black, Indigenous, and students of colour respond—compared with white students—to see if there’s a difference.
Then fund and support student-led discussions about how current SLO programs affect students and whether the programs are working as intended or need to be revised or replaced. Centre the voices of black, Indigenous, and students of colour to ensure they get time and space to be heard, if they choose to participate.
Task students with developing recommendations for their school boards for a path forward that ensures no student feels intimidated in their school by the presence of police officers.
Finally, and most importantly, listen to the students and act on what they tell their school boards, and all of us.
I challenge the Burnaby school board to be the first to start this process, and I hope the rest follow or, better still, beat them to it.