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Parents wary of allowing cops unrestricted access to schools

Where did the idea of installing a full-time police liaison officer in Whistler’s schools come from? Was it the parents who asked for it, or was it the students or the school staff? That is what some parents at the recent Whistler secondary scho

Where did the idea of installing a full-time police liaison officer in Whistler’s schools come from? Was it the parents who asked for it, or was it the students or the school staff?

That is what some parents at the recent Whistler secondary school Parent Advisory Council meeting wanted to know from local RCMP Staff Sgt. Hilton Haider.

"I asked for it," said Haider.

The staff sergeant, who replaced Frank Shedden in May last year, told a handful of parents attending the PAC meeting that the idea was initiated by the police.

Haider was at the high school PAC meeting April 23 to solicit parental support for a full-time school liaison officer. Already he has taken his proposal to the municipality, the elementary school PAC and to the Howe Sound school board.

The school district supports the concept but will not provide funding for it. The Resort Municipality of Whistler has, however, set aside funding for a third of the cost of a full-time school liaison position. Those funds, said Haider, have been frozen. "They are there and available for me to use." All that is needed is a letter from Whistler’s mayor to Canada’s Attorney General to say Whistler needs another policeman, one dedicated to the schools.

But, said Haider, that won’t happen unless there is a groundswell of grassroots support for the concept. The request for a policeman in local schools has to come from the community and that is why Haider is doing the rounds and making his case for the position.

The staff sergeant also believes the balance of the $72,000 in funding required for the position can be made available to the Whistler RCMP if parents make a strong case for it.

He said his vision is to split the full-time school liaison task between two officers. One officer would be assigned to Myrtle Philip, the other to Whistler secondary. The officers would spend 50 per cent of their work time at their respective schools from September through June. The other half of the work week would be devoted to community police work. This plan does not account for the new Spring Creek school.

During the summer holidays, the officers would be deployed elsewhere in the community.

Haider is working towards a 13-year plan that would see kindergarten kids through to Grade 12 students connected with RCMP school liaison officers. He said it would probably take 13 years to see if the program was producing positive results.

He said the goal of the school cops would be to prevent crime and enhance community safety through education; promote the police as an accessible community resource; eliminate barriers between children, parents and police; investigate offences and enforce laws and promote policing as a career.

Haider said a typical day for the school cop would see the bulk of time divided between delivering education programs, investigating school-related offences and helping school administrators to informally resolve less serious incidents that do not necessarily require the formal intervention of the criminal justice system.

Topics such as strangers, 9-1-1, being home alone, pedestrian safety, sexual and physical abuse, date rape, drugs, criminal law, traffic and liquor regulations, weapons and drinking and driving would be addressed.

The officer would also attend classes and work with student and parent groups.

Haider told parents a school liaison officer would provide a positive and visible police presence in schools and surrounding neighbourhoods.

The school cop would also identify "at risk" students and provide resources to help deal with them in a proactive fashion, noted Haider. "We do have students here who are from time to time classified as high risk."

However, parents and some school staff are wary of allowing police un-mandated access to local schools.

There appears to be a general consensus that the work being doing in Whistler schools by community police officer Ray Bernoties is valuable. Even more of his time would be warmly welcomed in the schools but how much would be too much? That is the question PAC members and some staff are currently grappling with.

The other is the question of process.

As WSS principal Rick Smith told PAC members, the issue of police in schools in one that needs to be dealt with by the broader school community, including parents, staff, the town and above all, students.

"There has been very little discussion among staff at this stage," he told the PAC. "Please do talk with your kids," he urged parents.

It was also suggested at the PAC meeting that the RCMP make a presentation on the concept to the students themselves and that groups of kids be brought together to debate the move.

Parent Alex Kleinman said he would also like the input of the Healthy Communities group before any decision is made. He feels there are still many questions that need to be answered.

"And what problems are we dealing with? Are they societal?" He pointed out bullying, for example, starts in the home. "But where are we starting the fix?"

He noted educators and school counsellors spend years studying how to interact with children. A policeman, he said, also spends years training but for a totally different purpose. He questioned how well an RCMP officer is equipped for the school job and whether this would be a wise use of educational dollars.

"I would never want my officers to be educators," responded Haider. "I want them there as a human beings who happen to be police officers."

"Well I don’t think this is the place," said Kleinman. "Is this an RCMP marketing initiative you are asking me to fund? If so, then we have got a real problem."

Kleinman pointed out students bond with teachers and counsellors who are often with kids through most of their school careers and are seen as protectors. RCMP officers, on the other hand, move on every few years.

Some parents feel the school police position is being used as a way to garner additional staffing dollars for the local force.

The Whistler detachment has 21 police officers. Haider said work on the mountains and in the village draws away from community work. This would be one way to ensure a dedicated resource.

The concept of a school liaison officer was created in Liverpool, England in 1951. It was brought to North America in 1958 and launched in Vancouver at Killarney Secondary School in 1972.

All police detachments in the Greater Vancouver area have school liaison teams. There are now 20 school districts in the province that have school liaison officers. All are fully funded by municipalities, apart from the Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows area. All are areas with large population bases.

Before making any decisions, the PAC wants to hear from the broader education community.

"You are the grass roots," noted Haider. "You go out to other parents and ask them. It’s your children. Ask them. See if there is enough consensus."