Funding to revive a program that saw Victoria police officers interacting in schools has been readied in the five years since the initiative was halted, but debate around its merit and impact has reverberated.
In 2018, Victoria Police Department redeployed its three school liaison constables plus three other officers to patrol duties and to a unit responding to lower-priority calls over the phone. The department said at the time the move would “eliminate” the school position entirely, but now says it intends to re-up the program once it has sufficient resources.
“These redeployments have all been made in an effort to ensure we have the resources to respond to 911 calls,” VicPD spokesperson Bowen Osoko said in an email.
Money allocated for the school officer positions has not been reduced, despite the program’s inactivity, as it gets shifted to the redeployed areas. VicPD’s budget funds its authorized strength of 255 officers, but it has not actually been staffed to that level due to a significant number of members off with injuries or on long-term disability leave – while the department has also struggled to fill vacant positions.
The force’s comptroller also says VicPD isn’t fully compensated by WorkSafe but is contractually required to maintain the wages of the sidelined officers.
“For this reason, we have the costs for 255 officers but are unable to deploy that many and therefore gaps remain unfilled in the organizational chart, such as the (school liaison officers),” the comptroller said.
While it hasn’t been operationally doable, the Victoria and Esquimalt police board has intended to restart the school officer program and has earmarked funds for that purpose in all of its budget proposals since 2018. This budget season, however, has seen local councillors and teacher groups call for not reviving the program even if VicPD could manage it.
Victoria council turned down an attempt to not fund the “school resource officers” this year as the police board asked for almost $400,000 for their salaries and benefits.
“It’s just a big number for what doesn’t exist,” Coun. Susan Kim said during a special March 13 meeting on the police budget. “We hear from folks who actually work in the schools that it can be harmful.”
Those concerns were front and centre in a letter from the Greater Victoria Teachers Association that called for an end to the program. The union of about 2,000 local teachers in the Greater Victoria School District (SD61) said it based the recommendation on various research sources finding school liaison officers could harm marginalized groups that students and staff belong to.
“The presence of (school officers) not only harms many marginalized students, but also does nothing to solve the broader systemic issues caused by underfunding and austerity,” the association’s president Ilda Turcotte said in the letter to SD61.
That prompted VicPD Chief Del Manak to address the school board on March 13 as he called the letter “grossly inaccurate” and “extremely offensive.” VicPD says the program aims to build trust with students and reduce their risk of exploitation.
“The generalized stereotypes, outdated perceptions and sweeping prejudices against police in this letter is completely unfounded and inaccurate to the reality of our community,” Manak said. “I hear the concerns expressed in this letter. It is absolutely critical and important to hear all voices in the discussion, but I can tell you that removing police presence from schools, in such a sweeping manner that is called for by the GVTA, is irresponsible and would negatively impact the safety and well-being of students.”
SD61 board chair Nicole Duncan said a school police liaison officer review committee that includes representatives from the teacher union, police, parents and trustees is still in the process of drafting a report on the program.
“There is a divergence of views, that committee has not reached consensus,” Duncan told the board.
The committee’s recommendations will eventually come before the board and it will ultimately be up to trustees on how the district will move forward, Duncan said.