In the wake of school shootings in the U.S., it’s natural to wonder how our local leaders are keeping kids in this city safe from such tragedy.
In Surrey, it’s about “making sure it doesn’t even get there.”
That’s according to Rob Rai, who was manager of Safe Schools for the Surrey School District before being promoted to director of School and Community Connections.
“We don’t take chances,” he said in an interview with the Now-Leader. “The best way to make sure we don’t have school-based shooters, is being ahead of it.
“If you think back to Florida, to Columbine, to all of those schools in the U.S. there were all sorts of warning signs,” Rai elaborated.
“In Florida, that guy, students all around him said he was an angry dude… There’s always clear signs, warning signs. Red flags, if you will.
“When we become aware of anything that may be a clear, plausible threat, we are on it,” he added.
While Rai said B.C.’s districts have effective systems in place, two things set Surrey apart.
“One, is the relationship with the RCMP,” he said.
“We have a very strong relationship where if anything happens from either side, there’s a phone call from the sergeant of the youth unit to me, or vice versa. That’s 24 hours a day, that’s Saturday or Sunday. If something happens at 4 o’clock on a Sunday, we are on it.”
Secondly, said Rai, the Surrey School District is “acutely aware” of how kids are entrenched with their phones and social media.
About a decade ago, the district created the website psst-bc.ca (which stands for Protecting Surrey Schools Together) where children and parents alike can anonymously give tips.
“So what that does is it gives kids an opportunity, if they hear Johnny say, ‘I’m pissed off, don’t show up to school tomorrow,’ they can report it anonymously.
“And kids are really leading the push for school safety,” said Rai. “Look at Florida. Kids are really aware of what’s happening.”
The anonymous reporting tool is available in six languages, to reduce barriers for newcomers, and Rai said the district works hard to promote it to keep it at the forefront of students’ minds.
“We probably get about 200 to 250 tips a school year,” he told the Now-Leader. “At least one tip a day. It sometimes ranges from super minor, like ‘Billy won’t play with me at recess,’ all the way to, ‘I think Johnny’s going to bring a baton to school tomorrow.”
Kids talk, stressed Rai.
“When someone at school overhears that ‘Johnny’s really pissing me off, I’m going to kill him tomorrow.’ When we get a tip saying, ‘Billy is going to kill Johnny,’ most of the time it’s going to be kids blowing off steam. But how do you know it’s blowing off steam or a real credible threat? You don’t know unless you check it out. We’re going to be calling Billy and Johnny’s parents. The RCMP, in partnership, will be at the school at 7:30.”
The Surrey reporting tool has been used across the country, Rai said, noting one tip that came in about a school in Manitoba.
“We’ve had at least a half dozen this school year,” he noted, adding that the tips are always passed along to the other district.
In Surrey, Rai said the district is always working to learn about new trends and technologies.
“We have 70,000-plus students here and you can never become complacent,” he stressed. “We have staff going to conferences across North America once or twice a year…. and we have hundreds of staff throughout the district trained in risk assessment every year, including counsellors, vice principals, principals, and dozens of people from Safe Schools. There’s always multiple people in every building. Hundreds across the district.”
It used to be that threats would be made in person, or schools would find hit lists on a binder, said Rai, but now a lot of it is now happening on social media.
District staff, he noted, are trained to locate and assess threats made online and on social media.
“While we have to be able to interpret information, we also have to be able to find it. If kids are making threats on Instagram or Snapchat, we have to be able to navigate that system,” he said. “We take any training the province gives us.”
Rai said staff don’t talk to students about school shootings that make headlines for fear of traumatizing anyone.
“But we do have teams to talk about what you do if you feel unsafe, who you can talk to, where you report information,” he explained.
“If a kid comes to school and something makes them feel uncomfortable or safe, they have multiple avenues to use.”
B.C. schools are generally designed so almost all doors, internal and external, can be locked, ministry officials say. Many have policies where all doors are kept locked except one close to the office to ensure visitors check in.
“Typically, yes, all (Surrey) schools keep all doors locked other than primary doors, other than schools that may have portables. That would be to keep one strategic door open so kids can go back and forth to backgrounds,” said Rai.
Education ministry officials say many B.C. districts have gone to mandatory identification badges for school entry, which includes Surrey.
Some have used the authority available under the School Act to install video surveillance cameras, which requires approval of the individual school planning council.
“All secondary schools have exterior and interior cameras,” said Rai. “We do have some elementary schools with cameras on the exterior.”
While cameras help “after the fact,” Rai emphasized that Surrey likes to be proactive.
“We’re always trying to get ahead of it.”
Rai said to his knowledge there haven’t been any school-based shootings in Surrey.
But there have been shootings near schools, he noted, “in evenings and overnight… there are drive-bys in the Lower Mainland. But never on school property, never by a student,” he said.
In B.C., credible reports of armed intruders are rare for schools, but they do happen.
A middle school in Central Saanich is a recent example, after the administration received multiple student reports on March 1 of a man hiding in bushes near the school with what may have been a weapon.
As most schools do in an annual drill, a lockdown went into effect and police were notified. Doors are locked, students go into closets or under desks, blinds are closed, lights turned off and everyone keeps quiet while the threat is assessed.
At Bayside middle school that day, the regional police Emergency Response Team arrived with an armoured vehicle, extra weapons and a dog handler to search a one-kilometre radius of the school. It would take a nerve-wracking five hours before parents could be told the threat was ended. No suspect was located.
Communication key to prevention
B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says communication, reporting and awareness are keys to the ministry’s system established in 2012, known as the Expect Respect and A Safe Education (ERASE) Bullying Strategy.
A review for updates is currently underway.
“When you look at events south of the border, I think school districts are looking for ways they can evaluate whether what we have in B.C. schools is significant enough,” Fleming told Black Press. “A lot of it is acting on tips. Information comes from students talking in the school, that gets to a teacher, maybe a parent, and it’s passed to a principal or a school administrator.”
The ministry’s ERASE Bullying website (erasebullying.ca) includes a reporting tool where students can anonymously warn the administration of threats or harassment against students, similar to Surrey’s.
In 2017, training for “digital threat assessment” was introduced, and 17,000 B.C. staff have completed the training.
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.
Fleming notes that local school districts are ultimately responsible for security policies, but all boards of education and independent school authorities must have lockdown procedures in place.
Gun laws make life safer in B.C.
Don’t expect to see armed security considered for B.C. schools, despite concern about school shootings south of the border.
That’s the word from B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth. The minister responsible for police and provincial prisons, Farnworth says the British Columbia public has confidence in the safety of schools and communities.
“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,” Farnworth told Black Press.
“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.”
He credits Canada’s strict gun laws, and a culture that has adapted to urbanization from a rural tradition where hunting rifles and shotguns were widely held.
The province and police forces have hosted gun amnesties, allowing people to turn in rifles, handguns and other weapons to police with no questions asked. Anyone with an old gun that needs safe disposal can turn it in, but they should be sure and call the police first for instructions.
Police work with B.C. schools to warn of the dangers of gangs, often with former gang members describing how they were lured into the apparent glamour of drug dealing and crime. Police and border officials report that illegal guns are smuggled into B.C. from the U.S. along with drugs.
With files from Tom Fletcher
School attacks in Canada
- Nov. 1, 2016: In Abbotsford, B.C., 21-year-old Gabriel Klein is charged with stabbing two female students at Abbotsford Senior. Both were taken to hospital where 13-year-old Letisha Reimer succumbed to her injuries.
- Jan. 22, 2016: In La Loche, Sask., teacher Adam Wood and teacher’s aide Marie Janvier were killed when a 17-year-old boy opened fire. Seven others were wounded. The boy, who can’t be named due to publication bans, had killed two teenage brothers at a nearby house earlier. He pleaded guilty to several counts of murder and attempted murder.
- June 2, 2015: In Winnipeg, Manitoba, 17-year-old Brett Bourne was fatally stabbed after a confrontation at Kelvin High School. Another 17-year-old, who can’t be named due to publication bans, is charged with second-degree murder. Police said the dispute may have stemmed from “relationship issues,” possibly involving a girl.
- Sept. 23, 2014: At North Albion Collegiate in Toronto, Hamid Aminzada, 19, was fatally stabbed while trying to break up a fight. A 17-year-old was charged with second-degree murder.
- April 5, 2013: In Gatineau, Que., a man entered a school daycare and directed staff to take the 53 children to safety before opening fire. The shooter was identified as Robert Charron. Thirty-eight-year-old Neil Galliou was killed before Charron took his own life.
- May, 23, 2007: In Toronto, Ont., 15-year-old Jordan Manners died in hospital from a single gunshot wound to the chest after being found in a high school hallway. Two teens were charged with first-degree-murder and were later acquitted.
- Sept. 13, 2006: In Montreal, Que., 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa was killed and 20 others hurt when 25-year-old gunman Kimveer Gill opened fire in Dawson College with a semi-automatic weapon. He was killed by police.