There are more students in the Surrey School District than there are residents in the entire City of New Westminster.
And keeping them all safe falls to district manager of safe schools Theresa Campbell and her team: assistant manager Rob Rai, Sharon Yap-Chung and the 64 (and growing) staff members who work in the district’s Safe Schools department.
Since joining the district in 2002, Campbell has introduced numerous successful prevention/intervention programs and resource materials to enhance student and staff safety. Many of these projects have been recognized and replicated worldwide.
“It’s our responsibility to create a safe and caring school environment for 70,000 students,” Campbell says. “Admittedly, it can be a bit of a daunting task.”
With support from the Surrey Board of Education, the department has grown significantly over the last decade and now includes:
• 27 safe school liaisons who monitor and respond to potential safety/security concerns at 19 secondary schools while building relationships with students and modelling healthy behaviours;
• Five substance use liaisons providing prevention, intervention and support to youth and their families affected by drug and alcohol use;
• Five youth diversity liaisons working with at-risk youth vulnerable to gang or other criminal activity;
• 600 supervision aides providing lunch-hour security at all elementary and some secondary schools.
Surrey RCMP also supports the department by funding 14 school liaison officers, five RCMP members who deal exclusively with youth at risk, and two plainclothes members assigned to the district’s “Wraparound” gang intervention program.
“Essentially, we deal with anything that impacts school safety, climate and culture,” says Rai.
“We don’t have a day that’s typical,” adds Yap-Chung. “We’re hopping from the moment we arrive in the morning until the end of the day.”
With the rise of social media and the portability of online communication through mobile devices and applications, students can connect 24-7 if they desire. This unprecedented access means an issue or incident taking place outside the school environment can quickly extend to an issue within the school environment
Campbell and her Safe Schools team find the greatest success through initiatives that empower students, such as the district’s bullying prevention website, www.psst-bc.ca.
The Protecting Surrey Schools Together, or PSST, website encourages students to recognize and report bullying behaviour and any other incidents that cause them concern. The site has proven so effective that Campbell is currently assisting the B.C. Ministry of Education with the preparation of a similar tool that would be available to students across the province.
The Wraparound or “Wrap” program is another example youth empowerment. It fosters positive connections between youth and their school, their community, the environment and the trusted adults in their lives. Studies show students with strong attachments think twice about jeopardizing those relationships.
Last year, negative police contact was reduced by 67 per cent for students involved in the Wraparound program. In dollars, that’s a savings of $120,000 in policing costs alone in addition to the savings for youth courts, probation, schools, and community members and organizations.
Statistics are certainly telling, but more meaningful are the individual student success stories.
Rai recalls a teenage boy who was referred to Safe Schools after he was found working at a drug house weighing packages for sale. The 15-year-old was provided support through Safe Schools interventions and five years later is making a decent and legal living as a self-employed truck driver.
“A few years ago, that student would have just been suspended from school, sent home and left to his own devices,” says Rai.
Campbell points out simply penalizing or removing students from school doesn’t solve problems and can often lead to worse behaviour.
Substance use liaison Deb Cameron agrees.
“They may need to be removed from school, but not from gaining the skills they need to function in a positive way,” says Cameron. “Many Safe Schools programs are aimed at determining what’s causing the negative behaviours and working to help the student resolve them.”
Cameron gives presentations and workshops, and facilitates support groups in which Grade 6 to 12 students learn the skills of self-regulation, setting boundaries and ultimately responsible decision-making.
As difficult as it is to sit back and watch students find their own way, when they do it’s magic, adds Cameron.
“It’s a very special thing to be in a position to positively influence and help youth believe in themselves.”