The Cowichan Valley school district has acted quickly to deal with any danger to students after a group of 40-60 homeless started camping and using drugs near the district’s Beverly Street headquarters.
According to school board chair Candace Spilsbury and schools superintendent Rod Allen, daytime crossing guards have been hired, district staff also are out early cleaning up around district buildings and an additional problem area at Cowichan Secondary’s main site has been quickly closed off.
These actions have been taken following a summer of watching a troubling situation escalate near the board office, Spilsbury told the school board at its regular Sept. 6 meeting.
Spilsbury said concern about students had spurred the district to join talks with the wider community. Then Allen explained some of the details of an evolving situation.
“Things are looking different here than they did when we left in the spring. Estimates are that there are 40 to 60 people living behind the dike, behind our buildings here. A disturbingly large percentage of them are under 19.
“We know from conversations with Warmland House [homeless shelter, across the street from the school district offices], they are providing some services, such as clean needle kits, to kids as young as 14,” Allen said.
The district has already discovered that this is a vulnerable group of young people.
“We know that of the youth, about 80 per cent are children in care, and about 80 per cent are female. We also know that there is significantly increased injection drug use.”
Allen said that it appears the combination of nearby availability of drugs and needles and a quiet place makes the area attractive to the young people.
“Ground zero seems to be right on this property. It doesn’t seem to extend over to Quamichan or to [nearby] Alexander [Elementary School]. It seems pretty contained here,” he said.
Talks with neighbours are looking at the problems from two angles, Allen said.
“Number one, of course, is the immediate safety of our students and the adults that work here. A second part is how are we thinking of moving forward as a community with a situation that really didn’t exist here four months ago?”
Straightforward moves have been taken already.
“The rear courtyard of Cowichan Secondary is now completely fenced. And that’s not as simple as just putting up a fence. It’s an emergency fire exit so there have to be push bars in there. But that area is now able to be cleaned appropriately every day and is available for student use in a much more secure way,” he said.
At Beverly Street, starting about 7 a.m., a crew does a sweep around doorways and under trees, looking for needles and other paraphernalia, using appropriate safety precautions.
“Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, as Candace said, we have a number of students moving back and forth between the two campuses. We know there are some areas along that route that are particularly troublesome. So for the first two weeks of school, while we see what the situation is like, we have hired two ‘noon hour supervisors’ to be along that route during the day. We’re also chatting with kids to see if they are noticing anything or seeing anything and what we should be doing.”
Warmland House is also in on the discussions.
“They are also very supportive and will have some supervisory people out and about as well and have been helpful in helping with the cleanup around here as well,” Allen said.
Trustee Joe Thorne urged district staff to ensure the Ministry of Children and Family Development is involved.
“As you mentioned, some of these kids are 14. I think we should look at the ages and use the resources that are there,” he said.
Trustee Cathy Schmidt said the problem may be escalating, but it’s not new.
“The teenage girl thing has always been a problem in the Cowichan Valley. I know that from personal experience. And it’s not something that I believe is easy to get rid of because of how teenage girls think and how self-sufficient they are now. But if there is anything we can do, please let the board know.”
Asked if this really has just blown up in the last few months, Spilsbury said, “It’s escalated in the last few months. No one has really given us an opinion on why. We’ve kept asking and were given the impression that [various agencies] are doing a study themselves in terms of what we are dealing with.”
“An important ingredient is that the whole community here, including service providers, are working together so that we can support each other’s initiatives,” she said.