Crowding into the back field, hundreds of Belmont high school students cheered and chanted his name, hailing Ravi Parmar as a young folk hero.
The 16-year-old novice activist helped organize and lead last Friday’s student walkout at Belmont secondary to protest conditions in the aging school, and to call on the province to fund the Sooke School District’s plan to build two new high schools.
To the blaring honks of passing cars on Jacklin Road, students in dust masks waved placards outlining a litany of perceived problems in Belmont — poor air quality, duct taped floors, a leaky roof, asbestos in the walls and mould in lockers.
“Belmont is in very bad condition,” said Parmar, who staged the walkout with the help of Logan Howes. “There are danger signs on walls saying asbestos. We really need two new high schools.”
He began a petition about a week ago, not long after reading a report stating several Belmont classrooms didn’t meet air quality standards recommended by WorkSafeBC, including room 242, where he has French class.
Outraged, he organized and circulated a petition around the school and community. A student walkout was the next natural step to drive the message home.
“We decided to take things into our own hands to create change,” Parmar said. “It’s getting really exciting. We’ve had lots of great support from students, teachers and the community.”
By any measure, the noisy but well-behaved rally and Parmar’s petition, now with more than 1,700 signatures, were a roaring success. Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan plans to present the petition to Education Minister George Abbott. On Tuesday, Parmar is scheduled to meet the minister at the legislature with Horgan and fellow NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis.
“I just want Minister Abbott to know the condition of the school from a student perspective,” said Parmar, who plans to study political science in university with the goal of becoming a politician. “I know he has a very, very hard job and I’m honoured to meet him.”
Belmont and school district officials walked a fine line of not condoning the student walkout, but not standing in the way.
Certainly it helped that part of the students’ message jived with SD 62’s years-long effort to convince the Ministry of Education that West Shore student growth and the size and age of Belmont demands new high schools.
“We do understand their frustration in the lack of movement. And it’s good to see students involved and taking part in the democratic process,” said assistant superintendent Dave Betts. “It’s their right to have their voice heard, and that’s a good thing.”
But SD 62 officials may be gritting their teeth at the students’ public assertion that the building itself is infested with rats and asbestos, and is an overall health hazard.
“It’s an older but safe building. We wouldn’t put kids into a building that’s not a safe facility,” Betts said. “We regularly do maintenance on Belmont.”
The Pacific Environmental Consulting report from April indicated three rooms had elevated levels of carbon dioxide, but fungal levels were well below what is seen in the outdoor environment.
Peter Godau, SD 62 facilities manager, said the three rooms in question are not part of the school’s larger air circulation system, but maintenance staff are working on ways to improve airflow into those areas.
“It’s not a health hazard, it didn’t fail or anything like that,” Godau said. “It’s not uncommon to see (elevated carbon dioxide) happen in offices or classrooms.”
Remaining asbestos in the building is sealed in walls and leaks in the roof are repaired as they arise. A bigger problem are leaks through the old blocks of the building envelope, Godau said.
“Leaks are tough to find in the building envelope and need attending to,” he said. “We do what we can. It’s a large school, two blocks long and needs maintenance all the time.”
Belmont principal Carl Repp said the facilities department does an admirable job keeping the school running, but for him, the biggest concern is the building’s need for seismic upgrading — an expensive project and one of the key financial arguments behind the drive to build new high schools.
He also noted the rate of student growth and the need to re-configure grades to bring Grade 9 into the high school, will fill Belmont’s sports fields with portable classrooms.
“We have a bulge of elementary students moving through and we’ve got to create space,” Repp said. “If Grade 9s move into here, it will be portable city.”