A threat against students or a weapon on school property is always top priority for the Langley RCMP.
“You can’t take anything more seriously than that,” said Cpl. Craig Van Herk, head of the Langley RCMP Youth Unit. “Those types of incidences are automatically bumped up to a priority one for all of us.”
Priority one means officers from across the detachment drops what they’re doing to deal with the crisis.
“Everything else takes a back seat,” Van Herk said.
There are two possible responses to a weapon in a school situation, Van Herk said.
If there’s a weapon, but the suspect does not have access to it – perhaps it’s already been taken away by school staff – there will be a significant but not overwhelming response.
“We’re not necessarily going lights and sirens,” said Van Herk.
If a suspect has access to a gun, knife, or can of pepper spray, or is actively brandishing a weapon, it’s a different situation.
“All hands on deck, and you’ll see police vehicles descending on that location,” said Van Herk.
That’s the kind of response that took place last Nov. 22 at Brookswood Secondary.
Van Herk has put in years of service with the Youth Unit, as a member from 2008-2015, and since 2017 as the supervisor.
In the early afternoon, a student alerted the principal at Brookswood Secondary to a “suspicious male” seen on the school grounds, possibly in possession of a gun.
Police swept in as the school was locked down. Numerous police cruisers and unmarked vehicles surrounded the building. Students stayed inside as parents gathered in the nearby parking lot and waited for updates.
A police dog unit was brought in and conducted a sweep of the school.
Students were released a classroom at a time starting just before 3:30 p.m. that afternoon.
A later investigation by the Langley RCMP revealed that there had been an earlier confrontation between a Brookswood student and the suspect, involving pepper spray.
The 17-year-old suspect later returned to the school area, allegedly with a firearm, though police were looking into the possibility that the gun was a replica, or may not have even existed.
Regardless of whether police think a weapon is or is not real, or a threat is or is not credible, they treat all incidents as if they are, said Van Herk.
“We have no choice but to treat it seriously,” he said.
Social media has become a big part of the landscape of discovering and assessing possible threats, where information can move quickly and be distorted easily. Many times, teenagers may make bad jokes that have to be treated as serious by the police.
The RCMP noted in the aftermath of the Brookswood Secondary incident that rumours had spread on social media rapidly while the school was still in lockdown – which did not aid the investigation.
Van Herk noted another recent incident.
A possible threat was posted on Snapchat, aimed at a local school. A student notified the school principal, who called in the RCMP.
Police treated it as a bona fide threat, and found the student. Van Herk described the posting as a “poor choice.” The student received consequences at school and was referred to counselling.
With the incident seemingly done, two days later a screenshot of the same threat began circulating. A different student at a different school was wrongly identified on social media as the person behind the posting.
“The whole thing got spun right up,” Van Herk said.
The Langley School District tries to prepare for emergencies.
“They do three lockdown drills a year,” said spokesperson Ken Hoff.
After each drill, administrators do a bit of a debriefing. Reviews also take place after real incidents, like the Brookswood incident.
“There is always an opportunity to review and go over those procedures,” Hoff said.
Langley Youth Unit members work closely with schools, and try to build bridges with kids.
This year marks the eighth season of hockey games between youth at risk in Langley and RCMP officers. The officers regularly go into schools, talk to students, and try to intervene preventatively.
“They trust you to treat them fairly,” said Const. Janet Northrup, a longtime Youth Unit officer.
The bulk of the unit’s time is not spent dealing with threats, but there is no typical day.
“We definitely don’t have two weeks that are the same,” said Const. Jody Park. “Or two days that are the same.”
While they do criminal investigation, education and prevention are also important tools for the unit.