British Columbia

Black student says police presence at school intimidating

Haleluya Hailu, a Black Grade 11 student at Burnaby North Secondary, says the use of RCMP liaison officers at her school intimidates her.

Burnaby North Secondary student responds to Twitter video, since deleted, posted by Burnaby RCMP

Burnaby North Secondary student Haleluya Hailu is pictured in Surrey, British Columbia on Tuesday, June 9, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Haleluya Hailu, a Black Grade 11 student at Burnaby North Secondary, says the use of RCMP liaison officers at her school intimidates her.

"Indigenous and Black people, even though being the minority in Vancouver and in a lot of places in Canada, they are the majority of arrests," said Hailu. 

"When [police] are in my learning environment and my school district preaches diversity and reconciliation, it just doesn't make me feel good."

Hailu's comments come after Burnaby RCMP posted a Twitter video last week, since deleted, of a liaison officer in uniform welcoming students returning to school after the pandemic. The video was subsequently retweeted by the Burnaby School District.

It quickly came under fire, especially in the context of mass protests across North America against racism and police brutality. 

The Burnaby RCMP eventually deleted the video. 

"After it was posted, it became apparent that the video did not relay our intended message and we chose to remove it," said Chief Supt. Deanne Burleigh with the Burnaby RCMP.

The Burnaby School District later tweeted out an apology acknowledging and apologizing for any harm done by its retweet.

"Positive intentions notwithstanding, we recognize the timing of this retweet was wrong and it has been deleted," its tweet read.

The Burnaby Board of Education also sent a letter to students and families saying they were seeking ways to better inform their anti-racist policies and practices. The letter did not mention police liaison officers.

Hailu says given that Indigenous and Black people account for a disproportionate number of arrests in "a lot of places in Canada," she doesn't feel comfortable having school liaison officers in her high school. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The Burnaby RCMP say the school liaison officers are meant to provide outreach and personal safety guidelines on relevant topics such as safe driving, cyber bullying and the risks of sharing intimate images.

"[The] team of police officers [use] crime prevention, education and early intervention strategies to create and maintain a safe and caring learning environment," the statement continued.

Hailu said while she hasn't personally had a negative experience with a liaison officer at her school, she doesn't understand their purpose.

"If you want to get rid of gangs and drugs, having a 30-year-old dude in a bulletproof vest isn't going to stop that," she said. "I'd rather see students making connections with counsellors, teachers and educators who are there first-hand dealing with these students more actively and every day."

Hailu said she's received a lot of support from her peers for speaking out, some of whom have already had negative experiences with the police outside of school and who were reluctant to share how the presence of the liaison officer made them feel.

"It's really nice to see that I'm not the only one," she said. "But it's a little bit sad that youth don't feel comfortable talking to the adults that are supposed to be their educators, right?"

In a statement to CBC, the Ministry of Education said schools should be safe places where students come to learn and grow.

"Accounts like these are very troubling to hear, but now is the time to listen to the voices of Black people and people of colour who are calling for change," it read. 

"Local school boards make decisions about police liaison officers in schools, but this student's experience speaks to the broader need for increased anti-racism work in schools and throughout our communities."

With files from All Points West, Ben Nelms