Patti Bacchus: Scrapping school police programs is only the first step

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      The reaction to the Vancouver School Board’s April 26 vote to cancel its 49-year-old school liaison police officer (SLO) program was swift and predictable, with a lot of older white folks dismayed and—dare I say it—triggered, arguing that the SLO funding and staffing halt would be a loss for students.

      It was more of the same on social media the following night (April 27), when the New Westminster School Board voted to scrap their similar program with the New Westminster Police.

      Stand down, fellow white people. These decisions aren’t about us, nor should they have been. Most of us see police as people who serve and protect us, and we teach our kids that police officers are friends who are there to help. Not everyone is so fortunate.

      I’ve learned a lot about how my experience and perceptions are not the same as others who don’t look like me, and I know I have more to learn.

      The police murder of George Floyd in the U.S., and the subsequent outrage, demonstrations, and discussion that followed, were a wake-up call for those of us who don’t experience the reality of racism every day of our lives.

      I committed to reading and listening more, especially to Black and Indigenous voices. I watched many sickening video clips of police brutalizing and killing people of colour. I read about the shockingly disproportionate number of Indigenous people who’ve been killed by Canadian police.

      I listened to Indigenous mothers speaking about the fears they have of when their cute little boys become teens and may not appear so cute and harmless any more, and their fears of them being harmed by police.

      I thought about the stupid things I did as a teen, and how my friends and I worried (a bit) about getting caught by police but never gave a thought to them hurting us. Why would we? We didn’t know anyone who’d ever been hurt by a police officer.

      Now I think about how I might feel if my father, sister, brother, mother, or cousin had been beaten by a cop. Or killed. What if I’d called police to request a wellness check on a friend I was worried about and police shot and killed her, like Chantel Moore? Or if someone I loved had been taken for a Starlight Tour by police in subzero temperatures.

      VSB website image publicizing its SLO program.

      Or what if police had dragged me away from my family as a child and taken me to a residential school, where I was subjected to horrendous abuse, as they did do to thousands of Indigenous children? What if they’d done that to my mother?

      The key to making the right decision about the SLO program was to centre the voices of those who feel harmed and listen to them. Those are the voices that matter in this decision, not the voices of those who don’t get—because of their own, often unacknowledged, privilege—why having police in a school makes some kids feel anxious or intimidated.

      The good news is that after 10 months of reviewing the program and considering its future, or lack thereof, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees did just that. This is who the decision needed to be about. It was the right decision, although what I think isn’t what matters.

      Show us the money

      The VSB’s SLO program will be cancelled, effective the end of this school year. The VSB will work with the VPD to establish protocols for dealing with emergencies and for when schools invite police officers to present on safety topics. That will leave program gaps that were filled by SLOs, but the VSB doesn’t have the money or staff to fill them.

      Last year, I did some rough calculations to compare how the respective budgets of the VSB and VPD had risen during the past dozen years, and it looks to me like the police budget went up almost 90 percent (!) since 2008, while the VSB’s went up about five percent over the same period. That tells you a lot about our society’s priorities and why the VPD can afford to allocate roughly $2 million a year to the SLO program while the VSB had to cut its elementary band and strings programs and much more during the past few years.

      While the VPD appears to have more large military-style weapons and increasingly aggressive-looking vehicles to patrol the streets than ever, VSB teachers use their own money to buy classroom supplies and parents hold bake sales to buy learning resources.

      A June 2020 tweet (since deleted) by the Burnaby school district approved of a school-liaison video that featured an armed officer clad in a bulletproof vest.
      Burnaby schools

      I have an idea: The VPD gets its budget from the City of Vancouver, which is governed by city council. The VSB gets its funding from the province. There is nothing to stop city council from redirecting the portion of the VPD’s budget that goes to the SLO program to the VSB to hire more counsellors, youth and family workers, or whatever is needed to fill gaps left by the SLO cancellation.

      All it takes is political will.

      Heck, wouldn’t it be great if they brought back school nurses? Imagine having trained healthcare professionals on-site and available to support kids in a safe and confidential manner. Imagine them being able to connect children with other services to support their mental or physical health when they need it and working as a student-support team with school counsellors?

      It can be done. There is a precedent. When I chaired the VSB, I worked with the mayor on a program to have the city fund school meal programs as part of city council’s effort to create a more healthy and resilient city. I believe that funding continues to flow today.

      Surely the same could be done with the VPD’s SLO funding. I challenge those who are concerned about the decision and the loss of SLOs in school to contact Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the city councilors and demand that the SLO funding be redirected to the VSB for next year. There’s no reason that trained youth workers can’t steer at-risk youth away from gang life just as well as police officers can, as just one example.

      Hopeful mayoral candidates for the 2022 municipal elections are already throwing their hats in the ring. Challenge them to make it a campaign commitment.

      Part of a growing trend

      The VSB and New Westminster school board’s decisions to scrap their school-liaison officer programs are part of a trend. The Toronto District School Board scrapped theirs in 2017. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board voted to cancel theirs last year. The Edmonton Public School Board’s program was suspended this year and is under review, as is Calgary’s. Most large school boards in Ontario, including Peel, York, Waterloo, and Ottawa-Carleton have either scrapped their school-police programs or are reviewing them.

      Vancouver School Board
      Martin Dunphy

      Across North America, debate is ongoing about whether police belong in schools and what impact they have on Black and Indigenous students and students of colour. As trustees in a progressive city, the VSB really had no option other than to vote the way they did. Even the board’s staunchest conservative, NPA trustee Fraser Ballantyne, who argued last spring that the board should consider how “Caucasian” students feel about the program, voted to scrap it this week.

      It’s important to note this decision was not about individual VPD officers. Many have spoken about the commitment, professionalism, and compassion most SLOs bring to the job. I’ve known several myself over the years and have been consistently impressed and appreciative of their work.

      This decision is about systemic racism and the impact policing has had on Black and Indigenous Canadians and other people of colour. For those of us who have committed to reconciliation, as the VSB has, a critical step is acknowledging and educating ourselves about the history of policing in this country and how it has harmed Indigenous people and been used to oppress and incarcerate them.

      VPD Chief Adam Palmer has been quoted saying systemic racism is not an issue in policing, suggesting a breathtaking obliviousness to history and reality in this country, where Indigenous people are disproportionately killed and harmed by police.

      There’s still a lot of work to do. The VSB and the New Westminster School Board took important first steps this week. Good on them. Now it’s up to city council to put the money that funded the SLO initiative into programs that support kids in schools in a way that makes them all feel safe.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.