District of West Kelowna councillors have met every two weeks for almost four years in a building next door to Mt. Boucherie Secondary school, but it was only in the last six weeks that they spent any time talking to their neighbours.
That was when a handful of students came knocking on their door looking for someone to listen to not just a host of problems going on in their school, but their proposed solutions as well. It was the culmination of a year of introspection among some of the schools’ leadership.
According to those students, it all began back in November 2010 when student Stephanie Greenwood articulated what apparently many students were thinking. The journalism club member wrote an article for the Capital News’ Mt. Boucherie page.
“She was talking about how, essentially, there’s nothing to do on the Westside and the relationship between that and the increase in the abuse of drugs and alcohol,” said Tahnee Pierson-Roberts, a Grade 12 student next year.
“She got a lot of feedback on her Facebook and email, people saying we couldn’t agree more, something needs to be done, thanks for being the first to bring it up and it kind of snowballed from there.”
Seven students took up the charge including Greenwood, Pierson-Roberts, Brianne Moore (entering Grade 11 in September) and graduates Beth Mansell, Erika Nairismagi, Michelle Boorman and Julia Anderson, under the guidance of school counsellor Irene Maier.
“It was just getting to the point where there is nothing better to do on the weekend,” said Nairismagi. “It actually starts back in middle school where you are encouraged to drink and do drugs because everyone is just thinking where are we partying this weekend. It becomes way too normal to be doing drugs and drinking on a regular basis…it’s hard to not fall into that because there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to turn.”
That’s the gist of the entire problem, but they wanted to know more about it. So, with Maier, they arranged a survey for students and got an astounding 1,300 responses out of 1,400 students.
What do they want to do? Of seven options, the two runaway winners were a bowling alley and waterslides—two venues West Kelowna had and lost in the last 10 years after the bowling alley burned down and the waterslides on Westbank First Nation were replaced with expensive condominiums.
The students recognized after talking with West Kelowna that those are business propositions council can do nothing about. But at least now they know.
And councillors also learned about some of the desperation next door. In two meetings, they got an earful as the students explained how easy it was to find drugs—marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine—among certain students. They estimate at least 100 students are high every day, throughout the day, smoking pot on school grounds. The students also came to learn that their school was an exception in the Okanagan in not having an RCMP officer, something they said could make a huge difference.
Getting suspended for bringing drugs to school or fighting is one thing; the potential for getting arrested is quite another.
They talk about the potential relationships that could be developed between students and the RCMP, both for students looking for a better way forward and for police to find out what’s going on.
“Everyone in the school knows who’s doing what,” said Pierson-Roberts.
“If someone’s planning a (break and enter) you can sometimes hear about it before it even happens.”
They presented all the information to council not knowing where it would lead.
“I think we got to speak for 15 minutes,” said Nairismagi. “We didn’t know how it would be received (by council) or we didn’t think they would say anything but they then started talking and arguing and making motions.
Councillors were clearly moved by the information and made three bold steps. They are putting a school liaison officer in the 2012 budget at a first year cost of nearly $190,000 and $147,000 every year after.
They agreed to provide two $1,000 bursaries to students for academics and civic involvement. The third is a twice-yearly breakfast forum with students and councillors and maybe more—Peachland council, Westbank First Nation, local businesses, the Boys and Girls Clubs for example—to open the door to more communication.
“We knew the meeting was just a start,” added Nairismagi. “We wanted to just build a connection between council and the youth…where students can provide their views of what’s happening and their ideas on what to do…and council can share their agenda and students can give their perspective on their issues.”
With graduation, only two of the seven leadership students will be back next year to see the results of their work, but they are satisfied with the road they are on.
“Council have done so much and so amazing at what they have done since then,” Nairismagi said. “They took us seriously and taken what we have suggested and something good is going to come out of it. We are such a new city and it’s important to give us a voice. A city can’t develop without a youth voice.”