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Police liaisons dropped as Greater Victoria school district eyes expert supports

Board ends program amid concern for marginalized students, lack of police interaction protocols

The Greater Victoria school district (SD61) board has decided to end the school police liaison officer (SPLO) program as it looks to instead have more qualified professionals support students in areas like mental health or substance use.

The board unanimously supported the direction on May 31 following a years-long committee review of the program and hearing from different perspectives.

Last year, B.C.’s human rights commissioner recommended ending the school officer programs until their impact could be established empirically.

That recommendation called on school boards wanting to keep the programs in place to provide independent evidence of the need for services offered by police that civilian alternatives couldn’t provide and to explain how districts are addressing concerns raised by Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities.

The SD61 board will also be asking the province to commission research on the impact of SPLO programs on students in B.C. and request stable funding for appropriately trained, certified and regulated professionals – like counsellors, social workers and substance-use educators – to offer services to students in place of police.

The board discussed how the district currently lacks oversight into interactions involving police on school grounds. Board chair Nicole Duncan said she hoped the new direction would lead to establishing clear accountability and governance protocols for incidents where it’s appropriate for police to get involved.

Multiple trustees noted they continue to receive reports of students feeling unsafe around police.

Elaine Ho, a psychiatric social worker, told the board her daughter was traumatized by police as a student at South Park Family School and the liaison officer was nowhere to be found during their struggles.

While experiencing emotional crises stemming from feeling mistreated by her father, Ho’s daughter at times became aggressive at school, leading to several matters involving police.

“The SPLO officers, they have not served a purpose in terms of engaging families. We had several encounters with police and the SPLO officer was not present at all,” the social worker said.

Various police officials called for the program to continue ahead of the vote.

Saanich police Chief Dean Duthie said local programs are unique to ones in other parts of the world and contribute to youth confidence building, empowerment, emotional intelligence and safety.

“Our school liaison officer’s primary focus is on relationships, it’s on inclusiveness, trust and personal and community safety,” Duthie said.

Oak Bay police board member Heather Cochran said they’ve seen students build a positive relationship with officers through the program. She claimed those kids are more likely to seek help if they’re victimized and they experience less trauma when involved in a police response.

“The SPLO program should fit into a broader vision of safety in the community and provide connections to other services, resources and partners,” Cochran said, adding the Oak Bay board takes seriously the concerns of Indigenous, Black and other marginalized students.

Trustees said departments already have their hands full with community policing and while their presence will still be allowed for emergencies, criminal investigations and lockdowns, officers can be ill-equipped to address a range of student issues compared to professionals. Victoria police paused its SPLO program in 2018 to redeploy officers to other units.

“If we end these programs, we’re simply de-tasking police from things they’re not properly equipped to do in the first place and ensuring that staff and students who have experienced trauma from police feel safe in schools,” said Matt Christie of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

Several police officials took issue with some of the data being considered in the program review and how it didn’t look at the impact of local SPLOs.

The human rights commissioner’s report cited a 2021 study that concluded there’s little research on Canadian programs but ones in the United States have been found to make marginalized students feel less safe, contributing to a sense of criminalization, and that officers discipline Black students and students with disabilities at disproportionately high rates.

With files from The Canadian Press

READ: Funding remains amid calls to end Victoria police’s paused school liaison program

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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