Patti Bacchus: The VSB is dragging its feet on the police-in-schools review

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      I learned lots during my eight-year tenure as a Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee, including how some like to use the “kick the can down the road” approach to pretend to be doing something while, in fact, doing not much at all.

      Sometimes that was legal advice to the board in response to potentially expensive lawsuits: drag it out until the other side gets weary or runs out of money and gives up.

      Other times, it was how the board or district management put off things that public or groups were pushing for but that the board (or management) didn’t see as a priority, or just didn’t want to do. One example is the VSB management’s response—or lack thereof—to a 2015 board motion to start the process to become a Living Wage Employer, in line with what the City of Vancouver did.

      That board motion was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm from VSB managers, and it seems to have languished in limbo for five years, along with a board motion to seek federal infrastructure funding to rebuild Xpey’ elementary, along with a centre for Indigenous history, culture, and education. Perhaps managers didn’t fancy putting in the extra effort and chose to ignore the motions and carry on with their usual agendas and trustees just let it go. I sure wouldn’t have.

      Taking it slow on the SLO review

      It appears the board and its management team are opting for a similar glacially slow approach to doing a review of its 50-year-old police school-liaison-officer (SLO) program.

      Last spring, the board heard from hundreds of people—including students, parents, teachers, and community members—about the need to get police out of Vancouver schools, given systemic racism in policing, and that having officers in schools makes many Black, Indigenous, and students of colour feel unsafe.

      The trustees voted in June to review the program, given that it’s never been evaluated and no one can really remember exactly why it began or what it was intended to accomplish.

      Although some school boards—including the Toronto District School Board, the Edmonton School Board, and the Hamilton School Board—have cancelled or suspended their school-liaison-officer programs in response to similar calls to get police out of schools, the VSB defeated a motion from trustees Lois Chan-Pedley and Barb Parrott to suspend the VSB’s program pending the review. That decision came after considerable debate and a call from NPA trustee Fraser Ballantyne to ask “Caucasian students” what they think of the program. I kid you not.

      Vancouver School Board

      While trustees Chan-Pedley (Vancouver Green Party), Parrott (COPE) and Jennifer Reddy (OneCity) voted in June to suspend the program, the rest of the board voted to keep it going until the review is completed.

      The board also directed its management staff to bring an initial staff report about the review back to the first fall meeting of the board’s policy and governance committee, which was last Wednesday (October 14), almost four months after the board’s vote to conduct the review. If you think considerable progress would be made in that four months, think again.

      Vancouver School Board
      Martin Dunphy

      Remember what I said about kicking the can down the road? Not only is there zero progress worthy of even a brief staff report, it turns out they haven’t even awarded a contract to a consultant to do a review because they put out a request for proposals and didn’t like the responses they got, so they’re starting all over again. That clattering sound you hear is the can rolling down the road, slowly.

      I’m not convinced they need to conduct an expensive review (the district has set aside approximately $100,000 to hire a consultant to do it, including public consultation) when they’re hearing so clearly from people about the harm the program is causing to Black and Indigenous students, or what exactly a review would accomplish.

      When I wrote about this topic in June, I suggested the board start by surveying students on how they’re affected by police in their schools and what works for them and what doesn’t. Then they should also disaggregate data to compare how Black, Indigenous, and students of colour respond to understand how the program affects them.

      Subsequently, they should 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. The discussion should 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. Students who participate should be compensated for their time financially and given some form of leadership course credit for their contributions.

      Finally, and most importantly, listen to the students and act on what they recommend.

      It’s the job of trustees to engage with the public and stakeholders (including students) and make decisions. When we heard back in 2013 and 2014 that not all trans students felt safe and supported at school, we didn’t award a contract for someone to consult with students, parents, educators, and experts and then tell us what to do. We held a series of meetings ourselves and listened to speakers share their research, experiences, and advice with us and asked our managers to draft policy revisions based on that input.

      On June 4, 2020, the Burnaby school district tweeted out its approval (since deleted) of an RCMP school-liaison video that featured an armed officer wearing a bulletproof vest.

      We debated the issues and then voted on revisions to policies and procedures. Consultants can play an important role in some contexts, but given how much the board has already heard about the impact of the SLO program on Black and Indigenous students, taking their time to wordsmith a request for proposals and then spending months “reviewing” the program via a consultant, at considerable cost, seems like a waste of both time and money without at least putting the program on pause in the meantime.

      Shaming the VSB

      If you have a spare hour or two, I encourage you to watch the recording of the VSB committee meeting last week, where seven speakers took the board to task at the beginning of the meeting and shamed it for its delays on getting police out of schools, and even for how hard it was for them to convince the committee’s chair—Chan-Pedley—to let them speak at the meeting.

      In a relevant side note, Chan-Pedley has stepped in as the new chair of the VSB’s policy and governance standing committee after Ballantyne resigned from that role in response to calls for his resignation from the board after his shockingly offensive and ignorant statements at the June meeting. Don’t just take it from me: His two NPA colleagues on the board, Carmen Cho and Oliver Hansen, later characterized Ballantyne’s comments as “offensive, reprehensible, and more particularly, racist”. Indeed.

      Fraser Ballantyne

      Instead of resigning from the board itself, and giving up his $28,000 annual trustee salary, Ballantyne chose to step down from his committee roles (which don’t pay anything), giving himself less work for the same pay. Full marks for absolute shamelessness, Trustee Ballantyne, and a fail to the board for letting him get away with it without so much as a public censure. What a terrible message that sends to students.

      The VSB standing committees’ purpose is to enable public and stakeholder input on board decisions in a less formal setting than a board meeting. They’ve been a sore point with some on the management side over the years, and standing committees pop up in various past B.C. Liberal-commissioned reviews of the VSB as a problem that needs solving (too political!) instead of as a valuable engagement tool that informs trustees.

      I learned much from those meetings, both as a parent representative and, later, as a trustee. They can be time-consuming but they’re well worth it: you can’t rush democracy. I wanted to hear as many perspectives as possible and gather as much information as I could before I voted.

      What is said at those committee tables sometimes runs counter to what management recommends to the board, which good, confident, and competent managers (with whom I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to work) aren’t threatened by and, in fact, appreciate. Unfortunately, some inexperienced and less-competent managers (with whom I’ve also worked on a few occasions) can find that intimidating and prefer that feedback and advice to the trustees be filtered through consultants (who report to those managers) or the managers themselves. You also can’t control the feedback in committees the same way you can shape the outcome of a consultant’s report.

      Vancouver school trustee Lois Chan-Pedley

      I’m old school and believe it’s crucial to keep as many channels open as possible so trustees can get unfiltered input and advice. The purpose of local governments is to ensure locals are represented in decision-making. That means making space in public meetings and inviting people to speak to the board, having online options open, attending small gatherings (COVID-safe, of course), and even posting trustee phone numbers on the VSB website, for those who prefer to communicate that way.

      The committees are already in place—why not take student input on the SLO program directly to that table and invite all other interested parties to address the committee?

      Pick up the pace and suspend the program in the meantime

      Refusing to heed the calls of hundreds of students and other people to get police out of Vancouver schools—and dragging the review process out—is oppressive in itself and is, arguably, white supremacy flexing its powerful muscles to preserve the status quo.

      If students are telling you they don’t feel safe at school with police officers present, you need to listen to that and respond swiftly. Putting the SLO program on hold pending the outcome of a review would cause no harm and would make even more sense during a pandemic, when nonessential adults shouldn’t be going into schools anyway.

      For those who think the program is too important to put on hold for a few months, pushing the pause button could motivate them to get on with the review and stop the ridiculous—and, unfortunately, predictable—kicking of this particular can down the road.

      Just because we’ve been doing something for 50 years doesn’t mean we should keep doing it. That applies to both the SLO program and the VSB’s delay tactics.

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