Future of Vancouver's School Liaison Officer program up for debate as review heads back to trustees

Members of Vancouver's school community will have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of policing in the city's schools Monday as an independent review into the Vancouver School District's School Liaison Officer (SLO) program heads to the school board's policy and governance committee. Nadia Stewart reports.

Members of Vancouver’s school community will have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of policing in the city’s schools Monday.

That’s when an independent review into the Vancouver School District’s School Liaison Officer (SLO) program heads to the school board’s policy and governance committee.

The district voted to review the program last June, amid a renewed civil rights movement spurred by the death of George Floyd as he was detained by police.

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Vancouver School Trustee Jennifer Reddy, who voted to suspend the program in June, said she’s open to hearing all perspectives at Monday’s meeting.

“What I am wanting to kind of zoom out towards is around the question of these systems and the appropriateness, the values alignment, do we have values aligned, and what problem are we trying to solve?” she told Global News.

“What really is the purpose here? And is this the best use of very limited and dwindling public resources?”

The SLO program has run since 1972 and currently includes 15 constables and two sergeants from the Vancouver Police Department, along with RCMP officers who serve schools on the University Endowment Lands. The program is fully funded by the VPD.

The review, conducted by Argyle Communications and which can be viewed in full here, spoke to staff, police, community groups, and students, with an emphasis on students who identified as Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC).

Overall, it found “a lack of understanding of what the SLO program is and how it serves the broader student population.”

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The report found a “spectrum” of experiences with the program from positive to negative, with some strong opinions on either side that the review found were often correlated to individuals’ experiences.

Notably, while about 61 per cent of students agreed the program contributed to a sense of safety in schools, that feeling was not well represented among Black and Indigenous students.

Just 15 per cent of Black students agreed, while 47 per cent of Indigenous students agreed.

Black and Indigenous students were less likely to refer to positive relationships with officers, more likely to use words like “uncomfortable, scared, anxious” and less likely to use words like “safe, supported and caring” to refer to officers.

Black students were more likely to see police as symbols of larger societal concerns such as racism and oppression, while Indigenous students were more likely to report discomfort around uniformed and armed officers.

Students who identified as people of colour also often expressed a personal connection to officers they related to, who may have come from a similar cultural background, as a trusted figure to go to for guidance, support, and conversation.

The majority of students expressed support for the program to continue or to be refined with small changes, but a “smaller but important group of students expressed a desire for the program to be dramatically changed or altered,” the review states.

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Suggestions on that front ranged from having officers be unarmed and out of uniform to completely ending the program and replacing officers with counsellors or other professionals.

Vancouver police say the program serves safety and community needs through crime prevention, investigation and enforcement; by promoting police as an accessible community service; and by breaking down barriers between youth and police.

“SLOs play a huge role in both elementary and high schools,” said Const. Tania Visintin in an email.

“Much of what our SLOs do daily is engage with the students and make the schools a safe and inclusive place for them to learn. While we certainly do investigations, our focus is on ‘public safety’ and student/staff engagement.

Critics of the program say it isn’t needed and fosters an environment of fear or anxiety, particularly among students in racialized communities who may have had previous negative experiences with policing.

I don’t think police have a role in schools based off of the overwhelming evidence of schools being predominantly safe spaces,” community advocate Markiel Simpson said.

“And when there are instances of criminality, they’re happening, whether officers are on the premises or not, they’re not actually intervening in or preventing any criminal action from taking place.”

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Simpson said he’s heard from students who’ve experienced direct forms of racism and perceived forms of systemic racism from the officers.

He also raised concerns that the report itself, by seeking “objectivity,” could discount the lived experiences of marginalized students.

“For example, we’ve heard from, let’s say, hundreds of students and maybe only a couple dozen Indigenous and Black students — and the Indigenous and Black students are experiencing harm and are expressing deep concerns with the program,” she said.

“But when we wash away those voices with those of people who aren’t in harm’s way with the program, it discounts what they’re trying to say and it perpetuates systemic racism.”

A number of people have signed up to speak to trustees as they receive the review on Monday.

The board will then discuss the future of the program at an April meeting.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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