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Comment: Why we need school police-liaison officers

The positive impact on school safety has been well-documented over the years.
Victoria Police Department headquarters on Caledonia Avenue in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Ryan Painter is a former chair and trustee of the Greater ­Victoria Board of Education; Lori Poppe is a member of ­Parents and Police Together for School District 61 and 62.

In May 2023, the removal of school police liaison officers from SD61 schools left our community grappling with heightened safety concerns. As we analyze the repercussions, it becomes evident that the absence of school police liaison officers has compromised the safety and security of our educational institutions and provided an opportunity for gangs to exploit the vulnerability of our youth.

The decision to completely eliminate school police liaison officers raised several critical issues, notably the lack of consultation with the broader community. Despite the formation of an ad hoc school police liaison officers committee by the school board nearly three years before the final decision was made, there was little meaningful community involvement. A survey conducted during this period revealed overwhelming support for the continuation of the school police liaison officers program, yet the broader community was excluded from the decision-making process, leaving many feeling uninformed about the fate of a program crucial for the well-being of our schools and students.

The consequences of this decision become even more alarming when examining the void the Board created, which has allowed gangs to infiltrate our schools. Recent incidents, including a suspect arrested by the Victoria police for trafficking and recruiting outside Victoria schools, underscore the urgency of the situation. With seven active gangs in the region, the absence of school police liaison officers has left a dangerous void that these criminal elements are more than happy to exploit. It is not merely a school issue; it is a community concern that demands immediate action.

The positive impact of school police liaison officers on school safety has been well-documented over the years, including opportunities to acclimatize youth to the presence of police in their community as a resource when they are in need. To be very clear, school police liaison officers fill a role that teachers and counsellors can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to fill. The decision to remove them not only neglected the well-established positive impact of the program, it also labelled police as enemies to student safety, and dismissed the voice of the community. It is time for the SD61 Board to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, instead of hiding their heads in the sand and attempting to placate the community by announcing a “new” police protocol, which is a transparent attempt to make official an engagement activity that has already been long established by the district.

Reinstating school police liaison officers is not just about mitigating crime statistics; it is about creating a safe and nurturing environment for our students to thrive. The positive influence of school police liaison officers extends beyond law enforcement; they serve as mentors, counsellors, and role models for students, fostering a sense of trust and security. Removing them has disrupted this crucial balance, leaving students more vulnerable to external pressures.

The rationale provided by Board Chair Nicole Duncan doesn’t carry water either. One has to ask: when she says some Black and Indigenous students don’t feel safe with police in schools, does she and the Board not think that diverse students deserve protection?

Where there are issues and concerns expressed involving communities that may have cause for wariness of police, these can be remedied through conversations and joint learning; things the district did a lot of during the three years after the committee was formed and before the abrupt decision was made to disband the school police liaison officers program. The path forward must embrace inclusivity and shared learning so students, parents and police officers can all better understand each other and trusting relationships and meaningful understanding can be built from the ground up.

The return of school police liaison officers is not just a remedy; it is a responsibility we owe to the present and future generations of the Greater Victoria School District. A revamped program that acknowledges sensitivities while keeping students safe shouldn’t be difficult. Victoria Police Chief Del Manak has expressed his willingness to work with the Board on this. If the Board does not reverse course, the currently rapidly deteriorating situation will get much worse, and they alone will be to blame.