Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Consequential questions remain about the potential revival of the SPLO program in SD61

The debate continues as to whether—and how—the school police liaison officer program might continue

Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Consequential questions remain about the potential revival of the SPLO program in SD61

The debate continues as to whether—and how—the school police liaison officer program might continue

Photo: Courtesy of Del Manak
Photo: Courtesy of Del Manak
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Consequential questions remain about the potential revival of the SPLO program in SD61

The debate continues as to whether—and how—the school police liaison officer program might continue

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Consequential questions remain about the potential revival of the SPLO program in SD61
Photo: Courtesy of Del Manak

Data and public input collected by the SD61 board all point to gaps that need filling to ensure student wellbeing in schools—with or without the SPLO program. 

Since School District 61 (SD61) announced, in May 2023, that it was removing the Police Liaison Officer program, much ink has been spilled in regional news about whether it should have been cancelled in the first place and whether it should be reinstated. 

After a multi-year public engagement process, the SD61 board of education announced that the program did "not best meet the needs" of its 20K students. 

A year after that announcement, the board has received letters from the police departments, parents, the learning community and beyond, showing disagreement and confusion around the program’s mandate and implementation. 

One of the school board’s criticisms was that the program lacked defined objectives, oversight, reporting and review mechanisms. Board communications representative Kelsey Moore said that “when the program was conceived, and throughout the history of the program, a formal assessment mechanism [for it] was not put in place.”

The BC Federation of Teachers reports that “police in schools have been used to fill gaps in this under-resourced system. Police have taken on a variety of roles such as providing presentations on bike safety, digital literacy, internet safety, and substance abuse awareness, mentoring and coaching student clubs, responding to emergency calls, and helping students file reports of assaults.”

The program’s ad hoc application across the school board meant that outcomes were different in every school. Victoria PD and Esquimlat PD had pulled their funding for the program four years prior and re-allocated those resources to foot patrols—which included deployments into schools. Saanich, Oak Bay and the RCMP had continued to fund officers in the program. 

Saanich Police Department had four liaison officers, two youth team officers and one supervisor dividing time between 26 schools in addition to private schools in the municipality. Oak Bay had one officer splitting time between three SD61 schools in addition to private schools in the municipality, and the RCMP had two officers splitting time between four schools.

A letter to the board from the Parent Advisory Committee at Tillicum Elementary School reads: “Our SLO is always available and quick to provide guidance on a myriad of situations. Additionally, they help out with our breakfast program, volunteer to pick up bread donations and bring them to the school for our food programs.” 

Ahead of the school board’s 2023 vote to either continue or cancel the program, Saanich Police Chief Dean Duthie said, “our officers devote their professional skills, abilities and training to assist, develop and strengthen social and emotional intelligence, helping them [students] learn about decision-making, safety, and personal goal achievement.” 

These ‘softer,’ community engagement and student education elements around gangs, human trafficking and cyber-bullying are second rung on cross police department job descriptions and the hiring criteria they used to fulfill the program’s core mandate as a crime prevention program. 

For VicPD, the hope of the program had been to “enhance the safety, and security of the school community.” 

For Oak Bay the department said it was to “coordinate and implement community outreach initiatives as well as problem-solving unique situations brought to the department’s attention.” 

The RCMP said the program was about “the prevention, protection and law enforcement and providing quality service in partnership with our communities.”  

For Saanich PD the aim was to “deliver proactive police work primarily involving the prevention of youth related crime.”

Todd Preston, officer in charge of West Shore RCMP detachment wrote to the board confirming that “SPLOs were originally brought in as a strategy under the Community Policing Model which focuses on reducing crime and enhancing service delivery by developing relationships with community members.”

When police forces were hiring for the role they included a list of the duties and responsibilities, according to their mandates. At the top of that list for Saanich PD, a SPLO was being hired to “maintain law and order in accordance with the Criminal Code of Canada, Federal and Provincial statutes and Municipal by-laws.”

“Sound knowledge of relevant laws, regulations and procedures contained in the Criminal Code of Canada, other Federal statutes, Provincial statutes and Municipal by-laws. Particular emphasis is on the Youth Criminal Justice Act” topped the job posting’s list for required knowledge, abilities and skills. 

In addition to an array of training officers receive as part of their regular duties, successful candidates for the program were given specialized training in violent threat risk assessment for youth, critical incident responses in schools, digital threat assessment, and critical incident de-escalation. 

In his letter to the board following the cancellation, VicPD Chief Del Manak wrote, “The SPLOs are there to build positive relationships and trust with students which organically allows officers to be viewed as positive role models.” VicPD argues that SPLOs are a direct deterrent to gang activity that impacts youth. 

Gang activity and youth gang recruitment has been a primary concern of multiple departments in the region.

“We know that gangs are in our schools, on our playgrounds. We have followed gang members outside that are getting students to walk across the street,” Manak told Capital Daily. In March 2023 Saanich Police detectives seized over $100K worth of vaping products that were being sold to youth at local schools. 

Parent Julia Monorchio says her child was approached, in Grade 8, to sell vapes to other students. “Some guys will meet your kid and start talking to them and give them away. My son was told he could probably get 30 or 40 bucks for the vapes, you know, no harm, no foul, and you get to look cool because you've got vapes.” 

Manak said there was an overreliance on research out of the U.S. on the topic of SPLOs and feedback from the BC Human Rights Commissioners’ office that both suggested that BIPOC students were disproportionately negatively impacted by the presence of police in their schools. 

“That input was a game changer. The BC Human Rights Commissioner is quoting U.S. data, which I don't agree with,” said Manak.  

A source of board input that, in no small part, informed its decision to cancel, were references made to research authored by Kanika Samuels-Wartley and sponsored by the BC Human Rights Commission on similar programs in the U.S. and Canada. Her work raises concerns, arising from data coming out of those programs, that having officers in schools disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and other racialized students in negative ways. 

She speaks about a racial divide in the perceived benefits and potential harms of such programs, stating that the “limited research, even in Canada, suggests that Black, Indigenous and other racialized students and parents are far less enthusiastic about SLO programs than their white counterparts.”

“Most Canadian studies,” writes Samuels-Wartley, “especially those led by the police, have avoided the ‘race question’ altogether and silenced the concerns of minority communities, allowing for little insight into their experiences.”

Those results were made evident in a survey done by the SD61 board in which 40% of respondents had no idea the program even existed, and 4% of BIPOC students and 7% of Indigenous students reported having a negative or very negative interaction with an SPLO. However, because the categories overlap and students were allowed to self-identify under more than one category, the numbers are challenging to interpret. Similarly negative experiences were reported by 5% of their white counterparts and 14% of 2SLGBTQ students. However, because 2SLGBTQ students represent a subgroup of all survey participants, the number skews high. 

In 2021, the Greater Victoria Local Immigration Partnership implemented an open survey on racism in Victoria. In the section of their report focused on where racism happens, schools were identified as places where “the best and the worst happened.” Nine per cent of people they surveyed indicated that the impacts of their experience of racism at school had led them to drop out.  

In their letter to the SD61 board, Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour said, “These feelings of unsafety are not surprising. In 2017, 30% of 67 SLO incident reports came from Esquimalt High School, which we all know has a large demographic of BIPOC students.” The support network does not want the program reinstated.

Whether the intention is to make police more approachable, racialized students are far more likely to see the intrusion of SPLOs onto their experience of schools as a punitive profiling element. Some research has shown that negative interactions with police at school can even result in internalized racism or stereotyping. 

They may have reason to be wary—police recommended charges brought against Indigenous youth in Vancouver 56% of the time versus 45% of their white counterparts.  

A workplace survey on gender and race-based discrimination commissioned, in 2021, by the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board and conducted by the Victoria-based nonprofit The Inclusion Project (TIP) revealed that 76% of white participants agreed with the statement that VicPD values diverse racial or ethnic identities and experiences, while only 16% of racialized participants did. These numbers are representative of a domestic and local reality that cannot be considered in isolation when addressing the the potential makeup of future SPLO cohort out of the department.   

A freedom-of-information request filed by Victoria resident and blogger Stephen Harrison that covers the "general occurrence" reports filed by B.C.'s municipal police departments from 2016 to 2021 revealed that charges were laid against Indigenous people 11% of the time while they represent only 3% or the population. In Esquimalt, the ratio was more dramatic—15% of charges laid and 5% representation.

These numbers don't match comments Mia Golden, a youth counsellor with the Mobile Youth Services Team (MYST) made in defence of the program at a virtual SD61 board meeting on April 29. “Racialized people are the most vulnerable people. I know this both professionally as well as personally. And there are many well-meaning people out there ‘fighting’ for us. But what that does is maintain the status quo messaging that white people know better, and it keeps those of us who are racialized in the ‘victim’ or ‘less than’ role.”

To her, it is the very vulnerability of BIPOC to exploitation, that should keep police in schools. 

Risk factors that significantly affect youth gang involvement include siblings and or peers already engaged with the legal system, witnessing domestic violence, alcoholism, substance use at home, the impacts of generational trauma, housing insecurity, poverty, peers who are gang members, availability of drugs and firearms, exposure to race-based violence and community disorganization.

Addressing the psycho-social impacts of these on youth does not fall under the mandate of the SPLO program but in some cases, it is work it has been asked to do.

It’s clear this is not the end of the story, particularly since the most significant voices missing from the arena have been the voices of the students themselves, and whose representation, in the media debate, has been mainly limited to the board’s survey results. 

Students are deserving of emotional and physical safety at school. To this end, the board forwarded a number of recommendations for moving forward with the program that include having SPLO officers wear plain clothes when in schools and receiving additional cultural sensitivity and trauma informed training. 

They’d like to see SPLO job descriptions be aligned across all municipalities and have structured goals each year that will ensure sufficient policies and procedures that govern the operation of SPLO programs be established. The board would like departments to partner with the Indigenous Education Department each year for program planning. 

When it comes to outcomes and oversight, it wants to see actual investigations be conducted by someone other than an SPLO, the creation of an independent complaint process to address SPLO behaviour, and ensure trauma informed practices.

Whether the police departments can meet them in these recommendations, remains to be seen.


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Consequential questions remain about the potential revival of the SPLO program in SD61
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