Safety in schools continues to be a hot topic for Surrey’s trustees, as parents and teachers call for improvements throughout the district.
Since the new board was sworn in on Nov. 9, 2022, parents have packed the monthly board meetings in an effort to get the ball rolling on changes, suggesting everything from implementing school uniforms and adding surveillance cameras on playgrounds, to investments in extra-curricular activities and mental-health supports.
The Nov. 22 stabbing death of an 18-year-old outside Tamanawis Secondary is largely what prompted the crowds of parents to attend the meetings, held Dec. 7, Jan. 11 and Feb. 8.
But while the motivating factor was clear, it was evident not everyone was on the same page on how to best prevent such incidents from being repeated going forward.
Feb. 8, the board unanimously endorsed a motion by trustee Terry Allen to hold meetings with city officials from Surrey and White Rock, as well as the RCMP, to discuss student safety and where improvements can be made.
“There’s been a huge push from secondary (students’) parents on increasing the number of SROs (School Resource Officers) in the schools,” Allen told Peace Arch News.
“The board of education honestly believes that we have the safety mechanisms in schools… but certain parents like the appearance of officers in the school to give that stability.”
Police officers are not stationed at Surrey’s schools. Instead, the district uses Safe School Liaison workers (SSLs), who are district staff members, at each of its 21 secondary schools.
Additionally, SROs – RCMP officers – work 10-hour shifts for their assigned region of schools, Const. Sarbjit Sangha confirmed to PAN. These police officers either work Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday, going into schools for presentations and responding to calls for enforcement within their region.
More police in schools not suitable for everyone
Allen said it is important to also consider the perspectives of Surrey’s large BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) populations in any decision-making.
“There’s no way the board is going to move to a decision that intimidates anybody. That’s not going to happen. The intention is to not ram something down the throats of anybody that’s not comfortable with a decision the board makes,” he said, adding that there are people who see police in schools as something they “don’t support or are intimidated (by) or impacts their learning.”
The BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) released a report on Jan. 19 that consisted of the experiences and perspectives of BIPOC teachers on police in schools throughout the province. The Surrey Teachers Association (STA) is a partner of the BCTF and so, members had an opportunity to participate. The report – with recommendations including fully funded academic, social, health and emotional support services in place instead of relying on police for safety – was released with anonymity for all participants.
Lizanne Foster, first vice-president of the STA, said she agrees with the report and its recommendations.
“I don’t think that police belong in schools,” she said.
While she was a teacher at Queen Elizabeth Secondary, Foster said many of her colleagues and students felt uneasy with a police presence at their school, largely because of the big BIPOC population at QE. One time, she saw a racialized student being arrested by a white police officer, which she recalled as “traumatizing” for herself, the student and all of his peers who watched it happen.
While the BCTF reported varying views and perspectives on police in schools, there was an overwhelming amount of data gathered to support Foster’s experiences.
In September 2022, a report commissioned by the board was released publicly by Surrey Schools, with key recommendations outlined for the district to promote racial equity.
“In that report, one of the recommendations is not to have uniformed officers in schools. The report says kids get traumatized, so those are the kinds of things we can not overlook,” trustee Garry Thind told PAN.
Safety can mean many different things
Engaging the public in consultations will hopefully lead the district to solutions for addressing student safety concerns, Thind added, noting that at least 80 per cent community support will be needed for an official decision.
So far, one in-person community consultation has been conducted this month, at Tamanawis Secondary. Thind said it brought together about 70 parents who were mostly Indo-Canadian.
Safety for kids has “been an issue in Surrey Schools, especially with the Indo-Canadian population, for a long time,” the trustee said.
“But again, people don’t wake up until some serious incident happens and that unfortunate incident that took place at Tamanawis… that’s when community got really woken up.”
The scores of Indo-Canadian parents are not specifically asking for more police in schools, but are looking at options to further enhance the district’s SSL program or implement security guards at secondary school sites as a few suggestions, Thind said.
Allen said more of a police presence might be what some parents want.
“If it’s police officers in the schools, then it’s police officers in schools,” he said, adding that support for more police is the impression he has received so far at the board meetings.
What he hopes comes out of the community consultations, however, is an opportunity for everyone to discuss other avenues that address student safety, such as more “after-school programs (and) in-school programs.”
A second consultation is anticipated to be held in March.
Staff shortages also part of problem
Teacher and counsellor shortages need immediate attention, Foster said, adding that some elementary schools are operating with just one counsellor a week.
To actually address student safety in schools, she continued, more funding needs to be provided to mental-health supports, food programs, cultural education, youth care workers including Indigenous youth care workers, and more, in a proactive approach so that incidents such as the one at Tamanawis can be prevented.
The budget Surrey Schools receives every year from the Ministry of Education and Child Care is simply not enough, Foster said. In fact, the district fundraises to fill the gaps their budget can’t cover, including their food program for students, she added.
“I know parents are talking about how we should all wear uniforms, there should be cameras everywhere and a lot of these restrictions. The research shows that none of that actually stops any violence or crime because the only safe communities are the communities that are strong together; where there are supports, where there is connection, where there is collaboration (and) people know each other. Those are safe communities.”