New Westminster school trustees have voted to remove police liaison officers from schools.
The school board’s education committee voted Tuesday night to recommend the board discontinue the long-running program, which has been on pause this year while the board considered its fate. The three officers who normally work in schools are all funded by the New Westminster Police Department and have been reassigned to other duties during the 2020/21 school year.
The full school board will vote on the matter April 27, but the board is unlikely to overturn the recommendation of its education committee, since all the same trustees make up both entities.
The vote came after passionate presentations from parents and activists speaking to the harm that the police presence in schools does to racialized communities, in particular to Black and Indigenous students and staff.
Mary Trentadue, mother of a Black child, told trustees BIPOC students experience racism on a daily basis. She said cancelling the police liaison program would reduce risk and harm for Black and Indigenous youth.
“Youth and families are asking for police to be removed. Why is further proof required?” she said. “We ought to be centring students and families in this request, hearing them and not asking for additional evidence.”
Alejandra López Bravo, who works with the school district’s sanctuary schools committee, told trustees the presence of police in schools runs counter to the principles of the district’s sanctuary schools policy – which gives families with precarious immigration status a chance to enrol their children in school without fear of being deported. She said there is an ongoing fear that police will share information with the Canada Border Services Agency.
CENTRING BIPOC VOICES
Trustee Maya Russell, who chairs the education committee, noted the board has been in discussion about the police liaison program since the fall but felt the board needed “a bit of a reset” in the conversation.
She noted the district has held general consultation with the entire school district community, asking them about their experience with the program and how it has worked for them.
“It’s my opinion that that was the wrong question; that we really need, as people have asked us to do, to centre the voices of those who we know from research are disproportionately (affected),” she said.
Russell told her colleagues she had invited a number of people with expertise in this work to address the committee.
One of those was Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, co-director of the Toronto-based organization LAEN (Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network) and a strategist for the Police-Free Schools Canada campaign. She told trustees about her work in getting police liaison officers removed from Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board.
She said Toronto’s experience has shown that student suspensions and expulsions dropped after police were removed from schools and resources were reallocated to help the students most negatively affected by their presence.
She told trustees there is “more than enough evidence” to make an immediate move to police-free schools and to take steps to dismantle what she termed the “police to prison and deportation pipeline.”
She said reforms – such as more training, a more diverse police force or a new structure for the program – would simply perpetuate the same harms.
Amal Rana, speaking on behalf of the Cops Out Of School community organization, said her work with racialized youth has shown the issue of police in schools needs to be dealt with urgently. She said the board should not wait for more reviews because these issues are affecting Black, Indigenous and racialized youth “as we speak.”
“It’s critical to ensure that we remove cops from schools so they can be safer spaces again,” she said, noting the issue needs to be looked at through an “equity lens.”
“Even if a few students feel unsafe, it’s critical that we address that and remove police from schools immediately.”
TRUSTEES CALL FOR ACTION
Trustee Anita Ansari spoke strongly in favour of abolishing the police liaison program. She told her colleagues she often hears people say these issues aren’t relevant to New Westminster but said that’s untrue. She cited the experiences of Douglas College instructor Jovian Radheshwar, who last year came forward to talk to CBC about his experiences with racial profiling by police officers.
“I often hear people say, ‘I think you’re projecting problems from other municipalities onto ours.’ These are our problems too,” said a visibly emotional Ansari.
“I’m a Muslim woman of colour, and I never leave my house without my identification because these kinds of stories, they are so much the norm across my community. They are so much the norm for people of colour, and I’m really tired of people who don’t have these experiences pretending that they don’t matter or they’re not representative of our community or our policing force. This is a problem in our district, in our society.”
School board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal acknowledged the district’s ongoing review of the program hasn’t been concluded but said the work that lies ahead – in particular a BIPOC student forum that had been set for next week – is “unnecessary consultation” and risks re-traumatizing the students it’s intended to help.
“In the last 24 hours alone, my feed has been filled with Daunte Wright, another Black person killed by police. To ask our BIPOC students how they feel about police when every couple of weeks they see all the ways in which police don’t value their lives is irresponsible as a district,” she said.
Trustee Mark Gifford said the challenges with the police liaison program exist regardless of how many good individuals are involved and how well-intentioned they may be.
“The difficulty of trying to just modify the program, it’s in the context of a power imbalance, and it always will be,” he said. “It’s very hard to build trust in that sense of safety for those who’ve experienced harm, either directly or indirectly, when that power imbalance exists, no matter how friendly it looks.”
Trustee Mary Lalji attempted to have the issue tabled until the next meeting in order to give trustees a chance to consider the full complexity of the topic and answer questions about race-based data and mental health supports that were raised in correspondence to the district.
But no trustee seconded her motion to that effect, and the committee went on to vote 6-1 in favour of ending the program.
When the issue returns to school board April 27, trustees will also look at further details around how to restructure the district's relationship with the NWPD and how police will remain involved in such issues as school emergencies, critical incidents, violent-threat risk assessments, information sessions for students and a potential referral process to the gang intervention unit.