School got back in session amid a flurry of parent complaints and media coverage focusing on the mess of homeless camps and drug-related garbage.
But at Tuesday’s school board meeting, it was made clear that the Chilliwack school district has facing the problem head-on for months.
“We’ve been dealing with this all summer,” said Allan Van Tassel, director of facilities and transportation. “We’ve moved forward with more effort. We haven’t solved it but it’s definitely helping.”
That effort comes with a price tag. The district is now forking over an extra $1200 a day for security, mostly through extra nighttime security through Griffin. The district has also bulked up supervision during breaks at some schools.
The Griffin security team members have a good relationship with the homeless population in Chilliwack, staff said. So, bringing that company into the fold has helped get the word around that school grounds are not places to be camping out.
“It’s been a very strategic move that’s worked for us,” said Gerry Slykhuis, secretary treasurer for the district.
In addition to addressing the homeless problem, the extra security has helped to decrease vandalism. Cleaning up after vandals, who have burned garbage cans, broken windows and covered school in graffiti, has been a major cost out of the district’s operating budget.
And while the cost of security has increased, it also allows teachers and staff to spend less time cleaning up the school and more time working toward educating students.
“We’ve had staff dealing with this when they could be dealing with other things,” Slykhuis said.
Trustee Paul McManus said he was happy to see parents attending the meeting. A handful of parents did show up, including Justine Hodge, District Parent Advisory Council chair. She spoke on behalf of the parents and PAC executives who have brought up complaints of homeless camps and drug paraphernalia on school grounds.
In speaking to the board, Hodge requested the board sit down with DPAC and hammer out a time for a public information meeting.
“Student safety is at risk and parents deserve to be informed,” she said.
McManus said “there’s no easy solution.”
“Chilliwack is an appealing place to come to economically, but obviously it’s also an appealing place from homeless to come to as well,” he added. “But we have to keep them away from our schools, and we have to talk about this every single day until it gets better.”
Trustee Bob Patterson noted that the school district is part of the 43 or so agencies working together to find housing solutions, while trustee chair Silvia Dyck said dealing with homeless camps is “like fighting fires.”
“It’s in perpetual motion,” she said. “You put one out and another one comes up. We will as a board network to try to find solutions. It’s everybody’s problem. We have no space to sweep them.”
Trustee Barry Neufeld made a motion to the board to ask the BC School Trustees Association to take action on the homeless issue, as an advocate for school boards. Trustee Dan Coulter seconded the motion, and it was approved unanimously, with Trustee Walt Krahn absent.
In the second public participation opportunity of the evening, Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Lee-Anne Clarke also spoke about the need for action.
“What’s really at the core is that schools must remain safe places,” she said, for the students and for teachers and staff. She also said it was important for the board to view it as an “ongoing process.”
The District released a statement regarding fields that are shared between the city and the school board.
“In the past year, due to increased homelessness in Chilliwack and a recent change of a City bylaw, the School District has experienced an increase of homeless camps situated on school grounds, often adjacent to City parks. This issue has been ongoing and staff have been dealing with it all summer,” the statement said.
“The school district and the City have a number of shared fields. During operational hours it is the district’s responsibility for scheduling and caretaking. After operational hours it is the City’s responsibility. Although complexities exist ensuring site security and clean-up, this positive partnership through good communication provides significant benefits for our students.”