Public school board votes terminates police liaison program

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) voted to terminate its police liaison program nearly five hours into a meeting Monday night.

Police 'disappointed' by decision, but Supt. says service will respect decision

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board voted to terminate its police liaison program during a meeting Monday. Meanwhile, protesters with HWDSB Kids Need Help blocked off Main Street outside Hamilton City Hall. (@HWDSBKids/Twitter)

Hamilton's public school board has voted to terminate a program that puts police officers in schools.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) voted to end its police liaison program nearly five hours into a meeting Monday night.

Meanwhile, dozens of protesters staged a sit-in outside city hall that shut down Main Street that had police diverting traffic. They erupted in cheers as the voted was announced.

"THE MOTION TO TERMINATE THE POLICE PROGRAM HAS PASSED," tweeted HWDSB Kids Need Help, a group that had been calling for the program to end, at 11:13 p.m.

"We did it. We won tonight," they tweeted a short time later. "The fight for abolition continues."

The board has now asked staff to gather information on alternative supports and to identify next steps for setting up a replacement program.

Gachi Issa was one of the activists dancing in the rain at the sit-in as they waited to hear the board's decision.

"It was a very beautiful moment ... we were surprised, we were happy. This is a win for people of colour and racialized people," she said.

"This decision shows us the trustee board is finally listening to us ... maybe it is a chance for them to rebuild the relationship or one that hasn't been established before, but we want to make sure this isn't the only thing that is done."

During a phone interview Tuesday morning, police Supt. Will Mason said the service was "disappointed" in the board's decision to end the program.

"We were hopeful there could be a review and perhaps some re-envisioning of the program, but we respect their decision and we'll continue to to look forward and look for ways to engage youth. That's something that we feel is very important."

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, according to Mason.

A description on the police website says school liaison officers provided a "proactive presence" and assisted with investigations into incidents at schools, as well as helping build relationships with the school community.

A Hamilton Police Service (HPS) youth crime report this month says officers made 2,496 school visits last year, and conducted 838 investigations, 515 meetings, 198 school lockdown drills, and 87 incidents of informal restorative justice.

Of the 559 youth calls for service last year, the report says, 34 per cent were school-related incidents.

Issa said the activists don't have a particular alternative for the police liaison program in mind, but hope the school board has equity in mind when if it does come up with a replacement.

"We know there needs to be more programming for black and racialized youth ... that is the job of the schools and the school boards, to keep students safe and prioritize their needs. Our job is to make sure police aren't in schools."

Chair says program had gone 'off course'

HWDSB Chair Alex Johnstone said the board initially decided June 8 to review the program and report back in October after students raised concerns about being uncomfortable and "feeling targeted and intimated by having police in their schools."

Instead they voted to end it.

She noted some trustees have heard from students and parents who had positive interactions with police, but said equity is about making sure all students feel safe and supported.

"At the end of the day we need to look at that if we have a small group of students that are not feeling safe we need to validate that and work to build a better system where all of our students feel safe in our schools."

Johnstone also said the program had "really gone off course" and the police officers who were supposed to be building relationships with youth were often the ones responding to calls for service.

She added officers will still be responding to schools for incidents that fall under safe schools protocols and said the HWDSB is looking forward to working with police, though right now the board is asking for input from "the community, our students, our staff, our parents in terms of what they want to see in building next steps."

For his part, Supt. Mason said the service was looking forward to learning how it could improve the program as part of the review, noting it was meant to build relationships, not leave students feeling targeted.

"If kids felt that way that's very clearly not the intent of the program and would not be something we're intending as an outcome."

Opponents of the program included acclaimed author Lawrence Hill who wrote a letter calling for the HWDSB to scrap it.

"I ask you to pay attention to the protests that have arisen across Canada and around the world in recent weeks to oppose anti-Black violence," it read. "You have the opportunity to learn from this critical moment in Canadian and world history."

Ward 9 and 10 trustee Cam Galindo, who stood with the protesters, voted in favour of ending the program.

In a tweet he thanked those blocking the street for the advocacy.

"I hear you, I support you, Black Lives Matter! Tonight, [HWDSB] trustees voted to terminate the police liaison program. But we still have a long way to go. Let's do this!

Police liaison programs are still in place at the city's other boards, including for French and Catholic Schools.

"At this point it appears to be business as usual … for those other areas," said Mason. "However if there are things that come out of this that we can do better overall to serve those other areas we'll certainly look at implementing those things."

with files from Samantha Craggs and Bobby Hristova