HWDSB trustees voice concerns about 'lacking' police liaison report

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's review of how the police liaison program impacted students is still in the beginning stages, leading to criticism about the lack of results and concerns about how it will move forward.

Trustees hoped for more data by now about how the program impacted students

HWDSB's report on the impact of the police liaison program in Hamilton schools will be done next spring. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's review of how the police liaison program impacted students is still in the beginning stages, leading to criticism about the lack of results and concerns about how it will move forward.

In a board meeting Monday, HWDSB staff updated trustees about the review, saying the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive reorganizations related to it have slowed down the process.

Still, trustees were frustrated.

"I find this report a bit lacking in what I wanted to see," said trustee Maria Felix Miller (Ward 3). 

"I do not want to disregard the work sitting before us [during the COVID-19 pandemic], but I was hoping to see a deeper understanding of exactly what folks were emailing us about in June."

In the summer, trustees voted to end the controversial program following student concerns that it perpetuated racism in schools.

"For our Black, Indigenous, racialized and other marginalized students, the experience ... for many was described as being harmful," Sharon Stephanian, superintendent of equity and well-being, said.

Ward 3 trustee Maria Felix Miller said she hoped to see more by now. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Officers were not posted to schools as part of the program, but were called in for reasons such as drug sweeps, lockdown drills, investigations and education sessions. The program involved 11 officers who oversaw 196 schools.

HWDSB has been answering questions from principals and vice-principals about the new parameters for communicating with police since the program has been cancelled, Stephanian said.

Now, officers only attend schools as required by legislation, in situations such as lockdown drills or crime-related incidents, she said. Families who still want officers to counsel students on police-related matters can reach out to the service on their own.

With the new rules, "the only interactions that students will ever have with police in our schools is always going to be those negative ones," trustee Becky Buck (Wards 8 and 12) said.

Former student trustee Ahona Mehdi said Beck's comment doesn't acknowledge how the program has impacted the most vulnerable students. The board is investigating what Mehdi described as her own experiences with racism when she sat on the board.

"They prioritize a certain kind of student," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. "For a white woman to speak for racialized students by implying when there were positive experiences, rather than allowing racialized students to [say that], speaks for itself."

Concerns about police inclusion in working group

The board voted in June to have staff review and gather input about the program, identify gaps, and come up with alternative supports and a replacement program.

It will also incorporate feedback from a community-based working group that will be in place by late November, Stephanian said.

Director Manny Figueiredo, left, said student experiences will be the most valuable data the board can get. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The group will include students (especially those from equity-seeking groups), members of the human rights and equity community advisory committee, and members of the First Nation, Métis and Inuit community advisory committee. It will also include someone from the Hamilton Police Service.

The inclusion of police led to criticism from trustees and community activists.

"To speak frankly, having a representative from Hamilton Police Service present will create a barrier to participation to a lot of the voices we're seeking feedback from," trustee Cam Galindo (Wards 9 and 10) said.

"That's going to be a challenge we're going to encounter if we decide to move ahead with this structure, and in turn could have a negative affect on the type of data we collect."

HWDSB trustee Cam Galindo is concerned about police officers joining the working group. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

He recommended getting input from marginalized communities before involving police, or to seek feedback from police separately.

Miller and vice-chair Dawn Danko (Ward 7) echoed Galindo's concerns. Miller said the board should also brainstorm how it will reach students who would "never" join something as formal as an advisory committee. 

"We're going to be missing a voice, and potentially missing some very, very hard truths. I'd love to see a concrete but anonymous and safe way for our community members to communicate their past experiences with this program and their hopes and recommendations."

Stephanian said various parts of the working group wouldn't necessarily all provide feedback in the same room at the same time.

Miller and trustee Penny Deathe (Ward 15) also asked if police would hand over data collected during the police liaison program. Stephanian said that the board has access to data, but it isn't specific to HWDSB. Buck asked if police were unable or unwilling to share data. Stephanian said when they asked a year ago, police didn't actually have data to reflect the impact of the program on students.

Director Manny Figueiredo said the lived experiences of students will be the most valuable data they can get, and none of that would be captured in police data. Stephanian added they wanted to ensure they capture the insights of students living with the "greatest negative impact" from the program.

Former student trustee wants more hard data

Mehdi said she's unclear about what direction the board is heading in with the report and called the lack of hard figures "super concerning."

Sabreina Dahab, a member of HWDSB Kids Need Help, said the missing information was part of the original concern that led to this very process.

"The purpose of the report initially was to understand how often police have been in schools, how race has been implicated in this," she said.

Ahona Mehdi spoke out this year about her experiences on the board. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Dahab and Mehdi said people already know about the negative experiences of students because of the police liaison program, and the board should focus on data that can show the prevalence of the program within the school board.

Stephanian said HWDSB has created a tracking tool to log school communications with police that will show when they call and why.

Board staff provide an update in January and a final report in March.

About the Author

Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

With files from Dan Taekema