This B.C. city is tackling gang violence by profiling high school students

The program in Surrey partners police with schools to identify kids who they say are at risk of becoming criminals.
January 7, 2019, 6:46pm
Surrey, B.C. has suffered from a high number of shootings and other high-profile incidents of violence.

A Canadian city long plagued by gang violence has been working with police and school staff to identify kids they believe are at risk of becoming criminals, in the hopes of intervening before that happens.

But the approach, which sees police officers given direct access to sensitive information about minors, raises questions about whether students’ privacy rights are being respected by the program.

For more than a decade, the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, B.C. has suffered from a high number of shootings and other high-profile incidents of violence, most of which police believe are related to the drug trade. Even as overall crime in Surrey has declined, in 2017 the city’s homicide rate sat at 2.15 per 100,000 residents, above the national average of 1.8.

In 2009 the Surrey School District took advantage of a federal grant to develop the WRAParound program, a partnership between the City of Surrey, the Surrey RCMP, and the Surrey School District to profile kids they believe are heading toward criminal activity and intervene to offer support, such as access to sports programs and other resources.

Sarah Mckay, manager of the Surrey School District division that runs the WRAP program, told VICE News that the indicators they use to identify youth at risk of gang activity are varied.

“We’re looking for […] violent tendencies, idolizing of gang lifestyles, hanging out with the wrong crowd,” McKay said in a phone interview. According to the federal government, the program also looks at if a student is a first or only son; if the student’s peer group is uni- or “multi-ethnic”; or if the student’s parents run their own business.

“We’re looking for […] violent tendencies, idolizing of gang lifestyles, hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

Although violence in Surrey has ebbed and flowed in the years since WRAP was launched, some students who have participated in the program have stated that it helped change their lives for the better. It continues to receive funding from the provincial government. But little attention has been paid to the inner workings of the program and the methods it uses to identify kids deemed to be at risk.

Mckay told VICE News that initial referrals to WRAP are made through an online referral form, most of which are submitted by school administrators or police. These referrals are then added to the program waiting list; when a student’s name comes up, the student and their families are contacted by WRAP staff in order to develop an action plan to guide the young person away from criminality. (Students cannot voluntarily sign up for WRAP.)

Documents obtained by VICE News through a Freedom of Information request show that once a student is contacted by WRAP staff, administrators begin keeping detailed notes about the student, including observations about their behaviour and activities, in a private database.

Mckay said that three plainclothes RCMP officers involved with WRAP are provided with their own unique Surrey School District email addresses, allowing them to directly access sensitive information about the students being monitored by WRAP.

While police do not have direct access to the referral database, McKay said WRAP staff can share information from referrals - which includes personal information such as any health conditions the student may have, or if they are of Indigenous ancestry - with police upon request.

“It’s not common knowledge that we have these [databases and notes].”

According to Mckay, there is no way for students to challenge any of the assessments that have categorized them as “at risk” of being a criminal. They also can’t request to see the information compiled about them, she said.

“It’s not common knowledge that we have these [databases and notes],” said McKay.

It’s not clear if the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has evaluated the program to see if it complies with privacy legislation; a spokesperson for the office would not say for confidentiality reasons, and Mckay said she did not know if an evaluation had occurred.

But Caitlin Lemiski, a senior policy analyst with B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, told VICE News that if students want to know what information their school has compiled about them, there are ways to do so.

Minors have “vast powers” to file Freedom of Information requests with any public or private organization in the province, said Lemiski in a phone call.

“Students can file free [Freedom of Information] requests for any recorded information controlled by the school, including teacher notes and emails,” said Lemiski, noting that there’s no age limitation in privacy legislation for requests made by minors on their own behalf.

Lemiski noted that exceptions in privacy laws mean that schools do not have to disclose to students if they shared the student’s personal information with a law enforcement agency.

Filing a Freedom of Information request in B.C. can be a complicated process that may or may not reveal any useful information, particularly if the institution the request is made to chooses to deny the request.

“There’s certain traits that come along with different cultural groups of youth.”

According to a description of the WRAP program by Public Safety Canada, one tool WRAP uses to evaluate kids is an unvalidated assessment process called the Risk Assessment Tool (RAT), which assesses supposed risk factors such as whether or not a student is a first or only son; if the student’s peer group is uni- or “multi-ethnic”; or if the student’s parents run their own business.

Asked by VICE News why these factors matter, Mckay said that family hierarchy and the ethnic makeup of a youth’s peer group is important to know, because cultural norms may impact the youth’s behavior in the context of gang activity.

“There’s certain traits that come along with different cultural groups of youth” that will impact how WRAP evaluates their level of risk, Mckay said.

Mckay said that WRAP uses “a number of factors” when making determinations about the ethnicities of students’ peer groups in the context of the program.

“We [also] look at their last name, or check out information in the District database,” Mckay said.

Racial profiling — the act of relying on stereotypical assumptions related to race, ethnicity, or colour to determine someone's suspicion — has been widely condemned by human rights organizations, and is something that police forces across the country have come under fire for.

Mckay said that WRAP works closely with B.C.’s anti-gang law enforcement efforts, including the Surrey Gang Exit Program and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, and that while the goal of WRAP is not to help police enforce the law, she said that the Surrey School District has assisted police with criminal investigations.

Matt Huot, a WRAP staff member, told VICE News in a phone call that once a student is referred to WRAP, the first thing program administrators do is share the student’s name with the RCMP and run a background check.

Huot explained that WRAP staff do not provide “active support” to police during investigations, but that they must follow directions of police in cases where students being monitored by WRAP are involved in criminal investigations.

VICE News requested an interview with a young person who had first-hand experience of the WRAP program, but wasn’t able to arrange an interview in time for publication.

Launched a decade ago, the WRAP program represents one of the first examples of “community policing” in Canada, a radical new approach to policing that has taken root across the country in the past decade.

Going by different names and taking slightly different forms in each province, community policing is characterized by police partnering with public and private organizations, essentially co-opting civilians to work more closely with law enforcement. The most widespread and well-known iteration of community policing in Canada is the Hub model, which has come under scrutiny for sharing individuals’ sensitive personal information without consent and inspiring other, questionable policing tactics.

Mckay is active in Surrey’s version of the Hub model, called the SMART table, which partners police with health and social workers to stage interventions with people they believe to be at risk of becoming a criminal or a victim of crime.

When it comes to WRAP, Mckay said, her team is strictly there to help.

“We pull out all the stops to try and help kids understand the repercussions of their decisions, and where certain choices are going to take their lives,” she said.

Mckay said that she believes police are essential to reducing gang activity in Surrey schools.

“My entire purpose in my [job] is to try and keep our schools safe, and the relationship we have with police is instrumental in that,” she stressed, noting that “WRAP kids” are fully aware that information they share with police will have consequences and that at-risk kids often open up to police voluntarily out of desperation.

Cover image: Superintendent Tom McCluskie of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit British Columbia, addresses a news conference in Delta, B.C., Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. McCluskie issued a public warning to anyone linked to the Duhre and Dhak groups that they could be at risk following the shooting of one of their associates in Surrey last week. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press