The BC Human Rights Commissioner is calling for an end to the use of liaison officers in BC schools, recommending the School Liaison Officer (SLO) programs be suspended unless school districts can show a clear evidence-based need for the program that can’t be met through other civilian services.
The Commissioner, Kasari Govender, said in an open letter to the BC School Trustees Association that marginalized students and communities have voiced significant concerns over the harm caused by police presence in schools. She added recent studies in the United States found officers in schools make students feel targeted and criminalized, and often discipline Black students and students with disabilities at disproportionately high rates.
“Out of respect for the rights of our students, I strongly recommend that all school districts end the use of SLOs until the impact of these programs can be established empirically,” wrote Govender.
“For school boards who choose not to take this step, it is incumbent on you to produce independent evidence of a need for SLOs that cannot be met through civilian alternatives and to explain the actions you are taking to address the concerns raised by Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized communities.”
A number of school districts in the province have suspended the use of SLOs in some capacity over the past number of years, including the Vancouver Police Department’s removal from schools in the city. Recently tabled motions made at Vancouver’s city council table call for the reinstatement of a new SLO program by the start of the 2023 school year.
Locally, the program’s future seems safe for the time being. The Merritt RCMP said the program is a way for students to connect with officers in a positive way.
“We’re not changing what we’re doing here in Merritt at this point,” said Sgt. Josh Roda, acting detachment commander for the Merritt RCMP.
“If the government gives direction or the RCMP gives direction then we’ll have to follow that, but we see a lot of value in the program. I don’t see how having a positive police officer in a school is going to be a detriment to kids. We want the kids to feel comfortable and safe around the police.”
Roda added that his son is in Kindergarten this year, and loves when he sees police officers at school. Cst. Blake Chursinoff, Merritt’s community policing officer, interacts with students and visits local schools on a daily basis, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“Our first thought is that we appreciate the work that the RCMP alongside us, so we know that’s important,” said Stephen McNiven, superintendent of schools for SD58.
“Secondly, we’re going to take this topic to the board meeting in January to make sure that our trustees are aware of what the human rights concerns are that were brought forward by the commissioner. Right now, our program is fairly limited, but the work that we do with community policing around safety is really important for us in our school district.”
McNiven added that the district values its relationship with RCMP in Merritt and Princeton, and that the next board meeting’s agenda would see trustees address the letter by Govender. Assistant Superintendent Jane Kempston says the district’s relationship with RCMP is positive, and prioritizes children and families.
“It’s all about safety and wellbeing, and the RCMP have been very proactive in discussing trauma informed practices with our team and making sure that their presence makes kids feel safe and welcomed in their schools,” commented Kempston.
To view the letter by Commissioner Govender, visit www.bchumanrights.ca.