Students welcome positive relationship with police

Schools & Students

It’s 7:35 on a cold and damp Tuesday morning, the kind of day most kids would like to be at home and still in bed. But at Windermere Secondary, 14 teens are warming up in the school’s front hall, anxious to get going on their twice-weekly run. School Liaison Officer, Mariya Zhalovaga – known to the students simply as Constable Zee – started the Windermere Running Club this past September.

“I ran a marathon a couple of years ago,” she says. “When I crossed the finish line I had such a feeling of accomplishment, I wanted the kids to enjoy running too.”

Zhalovaga’s efforts are paying off according to 16-year-old Tegan Breker, a Grade 11 student who joined the club earlier this year.

“It gives me physical confidence,” she says. “If I’ve had a hard week and I’m stressed, running helps a lot. It makes me go to bed earlier so I can get up earlier, and then I’m calmer for the whole day.”

The Vancouver Police Department’s School Liaison Unit was established in 1972. Officers with nine years of patrol under their belts spend five years working with a school’s students and staff. The program’s mandate includes preventing crime, investigating offences and promoting policing as a career. But Zhalovaga says it’s the breaking down of barriers between youth and police that can make the biggest difference in a young person’s life.

“If police weren’t in schools, the only times we might see kids is when we’re responding to an incident. Whereas here, as an SLO, I interact with them in a positive way, so they view the police as their ally, not their enemy.”

Across town at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary, Constable Ben Wong-Moon is greeting kids at the front door of the school. Six foot three and dressed in his police uniform, Wong-Moon could be an intimidating sight if it wasn’t for his cheery “good morning” to students and staff alike.

“For some kids, they don’t have a lot of friends, or their family life is tough,” he says. “So a smile or a hello might be the first moment of civility they come across in a day. And they’ll remember a friendly and welcoming police officer is there in their school.”

Like Zhalovaga, Wong-Moon is one 15 School Liaison Officers and two sergeants who work together as a team in the more than 150 primary and secondary schools in Vancouver. “You sort of become the face of the VPD,” Wong-Moon says. “And being here will help those kids in the future to report crime as a victim or, if they’ve gotten into trouble, be more prepared to cooperate with police.”

But after just two months as an SLO, Wong-Moon is already making a difference in the here and now.

One of the biggest challenges for an SLO these days is getting students to understand the seriousness of online bullying. Wong-Moon says it’s 50 per cent of what he’s called in to help deal with.

“A lot of kids think it’s okay to say whatever they want to about someone online, because it’s not real life. And I have to get them to understand that, whether it’s online or face-to-face, it can be devastating for the other person.”

In 2014, Windermere Secondary established a Boys Group to provide weekly afterschool activities for Grade 8 students with challenging life circumstances. A year later, the school launched a Girl’s Group. Both initiatives were so successful they’ve been expanded to include students in grades 9 through 12.

“We introduce the kids to things like rock climbing, snow shoeing, and we’re even taking a ski trip this year,” says Zhalovaga. “They’re activities that help the kids to make connections, improve their leadership skills, and enhance their self-esteem.”

It’s 4 p.m. and classes are done for the day at Churchill, but the school’s weight room is packed. Twice a week, Wong-Moon runs a weight-lifting club for students and staff. Today, seven students and one brave teacher are sweating it out. Wong-Moon’s dedication to fitness isn’t lost on the kids.

“He’s a big guy, so mostly we call him The Rock,” says 17-year old student Daniel Hau.

But Hau saves his best compliment for last. “Constable Wong-Moon takes time to get to know us, so when something happens it’s easier for him to connect and figure out what the problem is quicker.”

“I want to create an environment where kids can thrive,” Wong-Moon says. “And my job as an SLO helps me do that, one interaction at a time.” 

Police SLOs