A recent online panel focusing on police in Abbotsford schools highlighted the benefits of the program dubbed the “youth squad.”
The discussion was held last Thursday (Jan. 12), hosted by the Fraser Valley Human Dignity Coalition in partnership with the Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association, and was open to the public.
The panel included long-time school trustee Preet Rai, along with David de Wit, the district principal of learning support services – Safe Schools, and Sgt. Kevin Murray from the Abbotsford Police Department.
Murray oversees the school liaison program in Abbotsford, and spoke about the positive encounters he has had with students through the years.
“Most of the time was spent with super-high-risk youth,” he explained to the online audience of about 50 people. Most of those high-risk youth were girls who had been sexually abused, and many of those girls were Indigenous.
“It took a long time to build trust,” he said, explaining part of what an officer’s role is in schools, and how it is quite different than officers on different tasks.
“A uniformed cop is the one who came and picked them up and took them away from mom or dad,” he said, generally speaking of youth who have had experiences with police and social workers. “(For them) it was a harrowing experience to deal with, and it took a long time to trust a cop, even though I was a different cop.”
He said there are students who have a “deep-seated mistrust” of police, and he said that’s exactly why the youth squad is so important.
Late last year, the BC Office of Human Rights issued a letter outlining the damage that could be done in schools via the liaison officer programs. Abbotsford school trustees balked at the letter in a recent meeting, and said they support the program and the officers who work in local schools.
However, the panel was held to openly discuss concerns, and the school district’s superintendent has also said there will be a review of the program this year.
Murray said, in addition to learning to trust the police, students with situations at home also might have to learn to trust social workers, Crown counsel and others as they are helped out of abusive situations.
He and de Wit said the information that the human rights commissioner used was not entirely representative of Abbotsford.
“We are not roaming the schools with rifles,” he said.
But some in the audience spoke about their own experiences and concerns with the program, and urged the panel not to dismiss the commissioner’s concerns just because the data isn’t completely reflective of the local situation.
Among them was Sharanjit Sandhra, a faculty member at University of the Fraser Valley who teaches through the lens of critical race theory, and a woman who identified herself as Celine.
“For immigrants, police have a different connotation,” she told the panel. “So maybe you don’t get close to these people.”
There are currently four officers assigned to the Abbotsford Police Department’s youth squad. Three of them are white men and one is a white woman.
Murray said they are “aggressively” recruiting and are hoping to hear from more Black, Indigenous and female applicants, among other minorities, so that the force and the youth squad can be more reflective of the community.
Rai said the board is supportive of the program but supports the review as well.
“Every good program can be made better,” he said.