“Bold and brazen” gang members with known Lower Mainland connections have been recruiting public-school students in Greater Victoria, even walking through school halls and ignoring staff members who tell them to leave, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said.
“That’s just unacceptable, and what it’s leading to is a lot of face time with a lot of students,” he said. “They’re exploiting the students.”
Students might get involved in selling vaping products or high-end clothes for the gang members, so they end up thinking they owe the gang members something, Manak said.
“It’s a way to lure youth into committing other criminal acts.”
Some of the connections have ended in violence, the police chief said, including serious assaults and use of bear spray. “We’ve seen stabbings off of school property that have started through connections on school property.”
Manak didn’t reveal the number of students affected but said it’s “more than just a handful.” “This is a major growing concern that we’re seeing here in Greater Victoria.
He said that the gang members, many of them just a few years older than high-school students, are “savvy” and know how to talk to young people and pretend to be their friends. The students might be promised money, clothing and other things “but the students don’t know that it’s coming at a cost, that it is an attempt to recruit them and then hook them in.”
“Once that happens it can be a very slippery slope,” he said.
Manak said it’s important that parents talk to their children about the issue, and advised parents and teachers to watch for changes in student behaviour or the unexplained appearance of new clothes that could indicate something is wrong.
The gang influence can carry over into weekends, Manak said. “When there’s parties and other social events that occur off of school property, we know that students are engaging potentially with gang members and are being recruited through social media.”
The Greater Victoria School District has sent letters to families from all of its secondary schools about the issue, and the Saanich School District plans to send similar letters in the next few days.
Greater Victoria District superintendent Deb Whitten said the letter was sent “out of an abundance of caution and to encourage families to take proactive steps to ensure their children’s safety and well-being if they suspect their child may be involved in gang related activities.”
It does not refer to any specific incident or incidents occurring in the district’s schools, she said.
The West Shore RCMP is aware of the issue but there have not been similar reports in the Sooke School District, said Cpl. Nancy Saggar, who said police would notify the school and the public of any safety concerns for students.
The Greater Victoria School District letter said drug dealing and weapons-related offences have increased, including the use of imitation firearms.
“All SD61 secondary schools will be addressing school and community safety in the coming days and weeks as we transition to summer vacation,” the letter said.
Manak said it’s vital for local police departments to be united in addressing the problem, which has been raised with school officials at a regional school-safety committee that police belong to.
Everyone involved has to send a strong message to the criminal groups that they are not welcome, Manak said.
“They are certainly not welcome to go onto school property and intimidate, threaten and assault students that are trying to go to school and be in a safe environment.”
Saanich Police Chief Dean Duthie said what is happening is not new, but has definitely been getting more serious.
“It’s a really important topic for us to be on top of,” he said.
He said his department’s school-liaison program has been important in establishing relationships and trust with students, teachers and others that can help. “We’re in a strong position because of these relationships.”
Manak said it’s ironic that the Greater Victoria School Board was set to discuss what to do with its school-liaison program Wednesday night.
The program is not currently operating due to a previous police budget issue, but Manak has said he would like to see it return.
He said police have remained active at schools, and he is concerned that the board could limit police presence in schools.
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