Police liaison officers should continue to play a role in New Westminster schools – but minus the uniforms and weapons, and with a focus on diversity.
Those were some of the findings of a recent survey of New Westminster Secondary School students, conducted by Student Voice representatives who report regularly to school board trustees. Students Katharine Galloway, Sam Killawee and Jeryca Hechanova gave a report to the board’s education committee at its Jan. 12 meeting.
The Student Voice reps have been working since before Christmas to share information and gather input from NWSS students about the child and youth liaison officer program.
The program, a partnership between the school district and New Westminster Police Department, has three officers assigned to school liaison duties: one at NWSS, one who serves the district’s 11 elementary and middle schools, and a community-based officer who serves the district’s alternate programs and provides extra after-hours support.
The issue of police in schools gained public attention in the fall in the wake of international headlines surrounding protests against systemic racism and police brutality affecting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) communities. Against that backdrop, the New Westminster school district decided to conduct an in-depth review of the police liaison officer program, and the NWPD temporarily reassigned the three officers to other duties.
The Student Voice reps told school trustees their survey shows there’s support for the police liaison program in schools – with 79% of respondents saying the program should continue.
“Students want to see the program continue because it would provide a sense of safety and security at the school, especially in the case of an emergency,” Hechanova said. “They felt having a police officer as a resource at the school would support students and might help prevent crime and violence.”
Students also felt police liaison officers could provide support for students and a connection to the wider community.
“An officer is another safe adult that students can turn to if they are struggling to connect with parents and friends,” Hechanova said.
But the students acknowledged not all their peers felt the same way. Many students felt it was simply unnecessary. For others, their opposition stemmed from the fact that the presence of police can cause stress and anxiety for some students.
“They acknowledged that some students have had negative encounters and may feel nervous or scared to see an officer walking the halls of the school. There is a negative connotation to police that students carry, and having them around school would cause distress,” Hechanova said.
Galloway said the majority of students see value in continuing the program, but with added support – including counsellors as required – for those who have experienced trauma with police. She also said the officers themselves have a role to play in helping to improve relationships with students.
“Liaison officers should consider and acknowledge that some students may have a negative view of police. They should also be more interactive with students generally and really get to know them, outside of a crisis or an intervention,” she said. “There should be more conversation between students and police to create a sense of familiarity between them.”
Galloway said the students’ survey also showed police should reconsider how they present at schools – for instance, by not wearing uniforms and not bringing weapons into the schools.
Students also want their police liaison officers to reflect the faces of the community.
“Students want diversity: officers that are female and/or from the BIPOC community,” she said.
WEAPONS AND UNIFORMS OUT?
Trustee Anita Ansari agreed school liaison officers shouldn’t be carrying weapons.
“That is a really disproportionate show of force in an institution that’s designed to keep our students safe,” she said. “We live in a non-armed culture. Gun culture is not something that is normal in Canadian society and should not be normalized in schools.”
Maureen McRae-Stanger, the district’s director of instruction, noted the school liaison officers typically wear a modified, casual uniform consisting of black pants and a golf shirt with a police logo. Sometimes, she noted, officers will come in their more formal uniform because they may also be on other duties that day.
Although she said officers do typically have their weapons with them, she noted those weapons can also be secured (either in police vehicles or in a secure space on-site) if the officers are taking part in more personal, interactive activities with students – such as basketball or soccer games, or the Cooking With Cops program that liaison officers have led in the past.
McRae-Stanger said the district has brought those concerns to the NWPD, who will review the issue of weapons and come back to the district with ideas.
Trustee Mary Lalji said the board needs to keep the positives of the program in mind.
“If you eliminate the positive impacts that our police force has brought to our students and staff, not only do you fracture the relationship between our school district and the police department, when ultimately the goal is to address, I think, racism (and) discrimination, but you also disenfranchise youth by unwittingly discouraging them from accessing higher authority when they need to.”
Trustee Maya Russell said it’s important the school district’s work in gathering feedback keep in mind the bigger-picture conversation around systemic racism and the experience of Black and Indigenous people with policing.
“Which is not to say that’s the experience our students have with our officers, who are wonderful people, I think everybody would agree. But that piece around it not mattering what police department or what uniform, but the bigger issue in the continent, I would just ask that that be incorporated,” she said, adding the district needs to invite BIPOC voices into the conversation.
A final decision on the fate of the police liaison officers isn’t coming in the immediate future.
McRae-Stanger said the district’s next steps include having Student Voice reps present to middle school students and also to parent advisory councils to get input from parents.
She noted the district’s newly hired district principal for equity and inclusion, Rav Johal, will be part of the work on the program moving forward.
“There’s a lot more work to be done to figure out the complexities around some of these changes and supports for the program,” she said. “NWPD is also very invested in trying to work with us and partner with us.”
The issue will return to a future education committee meeting, but a date has not yet been set.