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Geoff Johnson: Recent incidents show school safety needs to be taken more seriously

The problem of violence in B.C.’s public schools has evolved into something far more serious than unsafe working conditions
Vaping products seized by Saanich police, which investigators say were being sold to youth at Victoria-area schools. Parents were warned in late May that gangs were recruiting young people to sell things such as vaping products and high-end clothing. VIA SAANICH POLICE

It might be time for the B.C. School Trustees Association to call a meeting of its executive to examine whether individual boards are aware of an increase of violence in schools, and what their role might be in establishing better lines of communication with authorities charged with maintaining safe communities.

K-12 schools are unique and complex workplaces, and both the number of claims and the injury rate related to workplace violence in K-12 schools rose steadily between 2015 and 2019.

By November 2022, teachers in Surrey had filed 58 complaints of workplace violence to WorkSafeBC.

Surrey Teachers Association president Jatinder Bir said the provincial government is not properly staffing or supporting education assistants, school counsellors and other support staff.

As a result, students with complex needs aren’t ­getting the attention and care they need in the ­classroom, Bir said.

“It could be throwing items, could be bites, kicks,” Bir said in an interview. “The working conditions don’t work right now for our kids in the system.”

But the problem of emerging violence in B.C’s public schools has evolved into something far more serious than unsafe working conditions.

Notwithstanding that some kids say they are scared — not of liaison police officers but of just going to school — the Victoria School Board voted unanimously to do away with the police liaison program.

In the meantime, a letter distributed by Greater ­Victoria School District school administrators in late May said police in the region were alarmed about potential gang involvement of a small group of ­teenagers in the community.

The letter sent to families in Saanich by Mount Douglas Secondary principal Donna Thompson says police warned school districts on southern Vancouver Island that gangs were recruiting young people to sell things such as vaping products and high-end clothing.

“There has been an increase in violence, drug ­dealing and weapons-related offences, including the use of imitation firearms and knives among youth,” the ­letter says, adding “social media has become a tool where gang-associated behaviour is being displayed and promoted on a variety of platforms.”

Const. Markus Anastasiades of Saanich police said the force had seen an uptick in gang activity at local schools. “We see gangs are attending schools and ­targeting youth, trying to recruit them into the gang life and that is very concerning,” Anastasiades said.

He said police couldn’t elaborate on which ­specific gangs they were referring to because of ongoing investigations, but they had made several gang-related arrests over the previous few months.

Anastasiades said gangs, both local and from the Lower Mainland, were actively recruiting young ­people, pointing to a bust back in March where police seized $100,000 in vaping products being sold in ­Victoria schools.

Meanwhile, Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers released video of what it describes as a “terrifying assault” by a group of armed attackers at a high school in Central Saanich last year.

Police said the video was taken in the school’s ­parking lot, where five masked individuals armed with weapons approached three students.

One student was “attacked by these people with a mallet, knife and baseball bat,” according to Crime Stoppers.

In April of this year in Nanaimo, a 15-year-old youth was charged with one count of assault with a weapon after a confrontation involving a knife led to a brief lockdown of a high school.

RCMP said a teacher called 911 about 11 a.m. to report a “melee” between several students and another youth who was not enrolled at Nanaimo District ­Secondary School.

During the confrontation, police say a “large” knife was seen being carried. A teacher managed to ­intervene and no one was injured.

In a 2019 joint document entitled “Maintaining School Safety: A guide for School and Police Personnel in B.C.,” the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General recommended the “strengthening of working relationships between police and schools at all levels.”

The document went on to emphasize that “school safety is a shared responsibility that requires a ­commitment to co-operation, collaboration and communication. Schools and police must have a common understanding of each partner’s roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures they both agree on and clearly defined decision-making authority.”

The time for talk has passed. It’s time for school boards to re-examine how to implement that “common understanding of each partner’s roles” before the ­situation in and around schools deteriorates further.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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