Members of a police response team search the area around Bayside middle school in Brentwood Bay on March 1 following reports of a masked person possibly carrying a firearm. Hugo Wong/Black Press

Growing protests over U.S. school shootings felt in Victoria

Greater Victoria School District officials confident about student safety in local schools

As an expected 500,000 descend on Washington, D.C. on March 24 to rally against mass shootings at U.S. schools, protesters will also take to the streets of Victoria.

Organizers of Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. are hoping to draw global attention to school shootings like the one that occurred on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. where 17 people died.

So-called ‘sibling’ marches are taking place in solidarity around the world, including Victoria, where a rally will take place outside the B.C. Legislative Assembly at 1 p.m.

Political differences along with very different gun laws separate Washington, D.C. from Victoria, B.C., yet the very fact that an American issue has generated a local response speaks to the emotional strength of this crisis even in corners of the world far removed from the actual scenes of those heinous crimes.

“In reality, when we look at our record within the province of British Columbia, and within Canada, we don’t see events like that within our country,” said Harold Caldwell, School District 61 director of learning. “So that is out of context, when a conversation is in relation to that…we take safety within our schools, very, very, very seriously.”

Caldwell is aware of what is happening in the United States, but urges perspective.

“It makes me very sad, and it makes me sad because kids are going to school and dying down there, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Then I look to us and look to our community, and know how safe our communities are.”

The most recent serious case of violence at a B.C. school dates back to Nov. 1, 2016, when two female students at Abbotsford Senior received stab wounds. Thirteen-year-old Letisha Reimer later died from her injuries and Gabriel Brandon Klein, a 21-year-old homeless person at the time, is facing charges of second-degree murder.

But for all of the attention that such cases receive, they are incredibly rare. That is what makes them newsworthy, but not representative of what is actually happening in schools.

“We don’t see the violence that you hear of – be it through media or through rumour, through social media – we just don’t see it in our district,” said Caldwell.

The Principals’ Review Committee handles incidents that the district deems to be “extreme and/or severe,” including incidents that involve assaults and weapons. So far, the committee has reviewed a total of five cases this year, and none involved violence.

“It is rare to get a kid come to the district level for a violent incident,” said Caldwell. “That is not to say that kids don’t have their issues with each other in school. But it is not like we are seeing fights every day. It’s not like kids are bringing weapons to school, because if they do, they come to me.”

Students do have disagreements, but many take place online. “I’m seeing more and more of that coming over social media, as opposed to face-to-face,” he said.

Caldwell would like to see more opportunities in the community to support the work that goes on in the school.

“We need those community centres to be open. We need those playgrounds to be available to kids. We need parks. We need families to be involved in their local community.”

He said school district officials inform parents about safety issues throughout the school year. The school safety plan informs parents about the rationale for various emergency drills and procedures. It also tells parents how they can inform themselves when such procedures take effect, be it a hold-and-secure (activated to secure the school during an ongoing situation outside the school) or a lock-down (triggered in case of major incident or threat of social violence within the school, or in relation to the school).

A report of a man with a possible weapon outside Bayside middle school in Central Saanich March 1 prompted what local officials called the largest emergency response in the history of the district. It included the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team with local RCMP assisting. Police did not locate any suspects following a search of the grounds.

SD 61, meanwhile, issued a hold-and-secure for Spectrum Community School, and nearby Marigold elementary school on March 8 to deal with a mental health issue, later safely resolved.

Such incidents can create anxiety, because some time may pass until officials can share information with affected parents.

“As a parent, you are worried about your children,” said Caldwell. “You hear lock-down and your child is in that school, you are worried, and I get that. But let’s be patient, and know that we train for this process to unfold the way it should so that we can keep kids safe. We will provide you with that information as we have that time through this process to do it.”

This said, Caldwell is currently part of a working group involving local police forces looking into ways to improve communication procedures.

Overall, Caldwell said SD 61 schools are very safe. Some people, he said, may disagree. “But that is their perception and that is fair,” he said.

“Overall, I’m going to say that our schools are loving and caring environments. They are that way because of who we are as a society, and they are that way because of who we are as educators within those buildings.”

That, however, does not mean that officials will close their eyes to potential threats.

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