Feature Friday: Keeping Central Okanagan schools safe in a new era

Safety threats posed to students and staff at Central Okanagan schools are rare events.

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News                                School lockdown drill protocols that have been established for dealing with an emergency situation.

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News School lockdown drill protocols that have been established for dealing with an emergency situation.

Safety threats posed to students and staff at Central Okanagan schools are rare events.

The school district has extensive response protocols in place to address those situations. That, however, doesn’t mean there are not challenges.

“Our message is safety in our schools is a paramount, number-one concern,” said Alan Lalonde, school district principal of learning support services, who has the responsibility for development of school threat assessment protocols.

Some of the challenges in that philosophy were evident at Mount Boucherie Secondary School last week after a student reportedly made a threat. It turned out to be a false alarm but Lalonde says the school district response was swift to assess its seriousness and reduce the feeling of uncertainty it left with students and parents.

Related: Threat of violence at Mount Boucherie Secondary

Lalonde says the impact of social media has a profound effect on how people and the district react. The spread of inaccurate information can fuel parent and student reactions. As well, the limitations authorities have to give extensive details beyond publicly stating a threat has been assessed and deemed not a danger, is also an issue.

“I think the Boucherie incident was more about people reacting on social media, and that part of it is difficult because people can share whatever information they want online,” Lalonde said.

“But it kind of reminded me of the person walking through the airport security and joking they have a bomb. It’s not a joke anymore. We are ultra-sensitive to any kind of threats so when something does arise that raises concerns, we take it very seriously. Sometimes kids are posting stuff online they shouldn’t be, but the digital footprint they create allows us to gather a lot of information quickly about that individual.”

The response protocols used today were initially formalized by the Ministry of Education in 2012, a system known as Expect Respect and A Safe Education (ERASE) Bullying Strategy.

The ministry’s ERASE Bullying website (www.erasebullying.ca) includes a reporting tool where students can anonymously warn school district administration of a threat or harassment against students. That includes online harassment, to identify situations that could lead to violence.

In 2017, the ministry introduced digital threat assessment training, where a provincial team of experts in violence risk assessment and prevention gives direct support to schools and school districts on high-risk cases and critical incidents.

Related: Working to quell concerns of school violence

While installing armed guards at schools and allowing teachers to carry loaded weapons are being advocated for schools in the U.S., Lalonde says that kind of thinking is not part of the discourse within Canada’s education system.

“The idea of arming teachers, I think most people in Canada think that’s not a great idea. We have not really talked about that at all…but it’s hard to believe that discussion is happening in the U.S.”

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth echoed Lalonde’s sentiments, saying he feels British Columbians have confidence in the safety of our schools.

“In my entire time as an MLA, which is 23 years, I don’t think I’ve ever had a person contact me about what goes on down in the U.S. all too often. I do think there are some fundamental differences in this province, in this country. There have been situations where there have been lockdowns, and the police are on them very well, and the school districts have protocols in place.”

Lalonde does acknowledge the huge impact RCMP school resource officers (SRO) assigned to local school areas have. SROs have a positive presence in schools and forge relationships with school staff, students and parents through workshops about youth crime and drug dealing.

“I can’t stress enough how great that has been to have that presence in West Kelowna and Kelowna schools,” Lalonde said. “Right now we have three SROs attached to Kelowna schools, one for West Kelowna. Lake Country has had one in the past but right now it’s a partial role.”

Related: Kelowna RCMP support Pink Shirt Day anti-bullying campaign

RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk says the rash of deadly shootings in U.S. schools in recent years doesn’t directly impact on local school safety procedures the police have in place.

“I can’t say incidents occurring in another country influence the manner in which we respond to threats in schools here,” Moskaluk said. “We do have school resource officers embedded in local schools but they are not there necessarily as a potential response to a threat, but more as a community service, putting our face out there with probably their key focus being relationship building.”

He said the police work with school districts across the province on response to potential risk assessments, also using the resources of the Southeast District RCMP headquarters to ensure that response is consistent across the region.

Susan Bauhart, president of the Cental Okanagan Teachers Association, says teachers play a role in the response process to potential threats, some having undergone the basic emergency response knowledge and digital threat assessment training authorized by the Ministry of Education.

“It’s different here than in the U.S., but if God forbid something were to happen I know the school district takes such threats very, very seriously, and they keep us all abreast of all of the latest response information and best practices,” Bauhart said.

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Capital News file                                A recent threat at Mt. Boucherie school was deemed not credible.

Capital News file A recent threat at Mt. Boucherie school was deemed not credible.