Parents blame gang conflict for enrolment drop at Abbotsford, B.C. high school

Over the last 10 years, the number of students at Rick Hansen Secondary has dropped significantly. Some Abbotsford, B.C. parents say they'll send their kids anywhere but there, including to private schools or changing school districts.

'Is my child going to go there and get caught up in the wrong crowd?' asks parent

Some parents are worried sending their kids to Rick Hansen Secondary in Abbotsford, B.C. could steer them down the wrong path. (Don Marce/CBC)

An Abbotsford, B.C. high school has seen a large drop in enrolment over the last 10 years and parents are blaming the ongoing gang conflict in the area.

Some are choosing not to send their children to Rick Hansen Secondary School because they're afraid their kids could go down the wrong path.

In 2007, there were 938 students at the school but enrolment numbers have decreased every year since then. Last year saw the biggest drop, with enrolment down to 591 students.

The school's enrolment has dropped consistently over the last decade. (CBC)

Rob Hallam, a former teacher and coach at Rick Hansen Secondary, said he's watched many students fall through the cracks in his more than two decades at the school.

"The number of shootings and gang violence you have in that neighbourhood is unbelievable," Hallam said.

"How would you feel if you were teaching a Grade 9 class and now, let's say five or six years later, seven or eight of the kids you taught have been murdered in the neighbourhood. How would that go for you?"

Hallam also lived in the neighbourhood and he feels the school and the district haven't taken the problem seriously enough.

"We molly coddle the thing too much."

Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald doesn't think the school itself is the issue, but he noted the part of town where the school is located does see a lot of young people involved in crime.

"If we were to track, let's say over the last three years, a large number of players from the Lower Mainland gang conflict have lived on the west side of Abbotsford," said MacDonald.

Parents consider other schools

Brenna Sigouin has two kids in elementary school and they're in the catchment for Rick Hansen Secondary. Sigouin said she won't send her kids to the high school. Instead, she plans to sent them to private school, or to a school in nearby Langley School District.

"Is my child going to go there and get caught up in the wrong crowd, or the opposite, is he going to go there and be a target and get bullied?" she said.

​"I know parents who go across town and they're driving 25 minutes there and 25 minutes back twice a day just to have their kids at a better school."

Brenna Sigouin is looking at other options to avoid sending her kids to Rick Hansen Secondary. (Don Marce/CBC)

Parents Pavan Dhillon and Kamal Gill, who also have children in elementary school in Abbotsford, said they too may send their kids to a different school because they fear Rick Hansen Secondary is not safe.

"There's a lot going on, so I'm trying to not send my kid right into the ditch," said Dhillon.

Gill agreed. "I've always been scared and every year it gets worse and worse. Every year you hear there is this kid who got shot down the road," she said.

"And all these kids are just 17, 18."

Programs to increase enrolment

Rick Hansen Secondary's principal, David de Wit, blames low enrolment on competition from two nearby private schools, as well as another high school and a traditional school.

De Wit urged parents to take a tour of Rick Hansen Secondary while it's in session. 

The principal said he thinks parents "have ideas in their head that don't hold any truth or any weight in this school."

In 2015, the school  began emphasizing business and science. The district says highlighting the school's offerings will attract more students who are interested in pursuing a career in one of those subjects.

District officials believe that emphasis is  working, noting the projected enrolment for the 2017-2018 school year is 40 students higher than the previous year.