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Human-rights commissioner calls for halt to school-liaison officers

Kasari Govender says concerns about the presence of police officers in schools have been raised by marginalized students, their families and their communities

The chairman of the Sooke School Board says he’s surprised at a letter from the B.C. human rights commissioner calling for an end to school-liaison officers at all B.C. schools until the need for them can be proven.

Ravi Parmar said the Sooke School District has three school-liaison officers, drawn from the West Shore RCMP and Sooke RCMP, and has no plans to end the program.

In her letter to the B.C. School Trustees Association, human rights commissioner Kasari Govender says concerns about the presence of police officers in schools have been raised by ­marginalized students, their families and their communities.

While there is little Canadian research about how the students are affected by them, she says American studies have shown the officers can contribute to a sense of criminalization and surveillance in schools.

“Out of respect for the rights of our students, I strongly ­recommend that all school districts end the use of [the officers],” Govender said. “For school boards who choose not to take this step, it is incumbent on you to produce independent evidence of a need for [them] that cannot be met through civilian alternatives and to explain the actions you are taking to address the concerns raised by Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities.”

Parmar said his district is proud of its relationship with the police. “We’ll take some time to review the letter, but we’ll ­continue to have a strong working relationship with the West Shore and Sooke RCMP in our district,” he said, adding: “We know that all of our work as a district needs to be done through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens.”

West Shore RCMP Cpl. Nancy Saggar also said police and the school district work well together.

School-liaison officers were discontinued in the Vancouver School District last year but the issue was set to be discussed by the Vancouver School Board on Monday night.

The Victoria Police Department cancelled its school-liaison officer program in 2018 while it was dealing with an ongoing staff shortage.

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak, a former school-liaison officer himself, said Monday that the cancellation wasn’t done because the department didn’t believe in the program.

He said the department received a lot of pushback from parents, principals and others about the cancellation because the officers were so popular.

“My intention has always been, and still continues to be, to — once we’re able to hire as many officers as we need — restore the school-liaison program.”

Manak said he is hopeful the program’s three officers will be back in schools in September 2023.

With respect to Govender’s letter, the police chief said it’s healthy to have the discussion. “It’s important to bring all sides to the table and to hear what the concerns are.”

Manak said Govender’s letter doesn’t reflect his personal ­experience as a school liaison officer, which he called one of the highlights of his career. “You really get a chance to build strong, positive relationships,” he said. “You become a role model.”

He said he continues to visit George Jay Elementary School and Central Middle School — both of which he attended growing up.

The Saanich police currently have a sergeant and four constables working as school-liaison officers covering 48 public and private schools in the Saanich and Greater Victoria school districts, including secondary, middle and elementary facilities, the University of Victoria and Camosun College.

Their efforts are focused on such things as keeping young people out of the criminal-justice system and developing positive relationships with them both inside and outside the school environment.

jbell@timescolonist.com

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