Edmonton school trustee resigns over comments about refugee students

Edmonton public school trustee Cheryl Johner has resigned from the board, less than a day after making comments about refugee students during a debate on police officers in schools.

Cheryl Johner's comments 'unacceptable, racist and wrong,' board chair says

Trustee Cheryl Johner said refugee students in schools can sometimes be violent. (Twitter)

Edmonton public school trustee Cheryl Johner has resigned from the board, less than a day after making comments about refugee students during a debate on police officers in schools.

"My comments were inappropriate and immediately regrettable," Johner, trustee for Ward A in the city's northwest since 2010, said in her letter of resignation. The letter was released by school board officials Wednesday afternoon.

"I take full responsibility for what I said, and sincerely apologize for the hurt and upset I have caused our families, students, staff and community members.

"My statement in yesterday's meeting does not reflect the care I feel for all students and families in the division."

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks tweeted Wednesday that Johner's comments were "unacceptable, racist and wrong. I have spoken to her and she has offered her resignation."

At a news conference later in the day, Estabrooks repeated that what Johner said was "racist, it's wrong, and it's completely unacceptable.

"And so now the important discussions will continue around how Edmonton Public needs to address systemic racism in our schools," she said.

Johner's comments created controversy on social media Tuesday where they were described as "racist" and triggered calls for her resignation.

"All they've known is violence," Johner said, in reference to students who come to Edmonton as refugees.

"When those students sometimes enter our schools they can be violent there as well," Johner said.

"The safety of students is critically important — that other students feel safe as they go to their own school. The officers act as a deterrent, they can respond quickly to de escalate situations when needed."

The comments triggered a wave of condemnation on social media from academics, human rights advocates and parents.

"How can ANYONE, let alone parents, allow someone so blatantly racist continue to hold power and advise on the safety and education of children?," wrote Shifrah Gadamsetti.

Another Twitter user, Wing Kar Li, said Johner's comments were "abhorrently racist, and 100% unacceptable for a trustee."

The Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council said Johner's comments discriminated against refugee students in Alberta.

"Picking up and moving your life to a new country is tough enough as it is and obviously when you further stigmatize those children and make them feel like the other, that's obviously extremely harmful to their development and their education," Adil Hassan, a vice-president with the council, said  in an interview with CBC.

Also of concern, Hassan said, is that no other trustee addressed Johner's comments immediately afterwards. Estabrooks said she didn't hear them at the time but was upset when she listened back.

"It's on all of us though," Estabrooks said. "I mean, if you hear a racist remark you have to act on it."

The School Resource Officer (SRO) program has come under increased scrutiny as city council considers the future of policing in Edmonton.

At Tuesday's meeting, trustees gave unanimous support to commissioning an independent study of the efficacy of the SRO program and its impact on students. If the study determines the program does more harm than good, the board will consider whether to permanently suspend it.

On Twitter, anti-racism advocate Bashir Mohamed said the board has had years to get the data and he had asked them to get it. He said it was irresponsible to spend more than $1 million on a program without any data.

"The fact that it has not been independently reviewed since 1979 is shameful to me," Estabrooks said.

Trustee Sherry Adams, who represents Ward I in the city's southeast, was also called out on social media for repeatedly referring to students during the discussion as "our minorities." 

In her statement, Johner said in her decade as a trustee she has tried to be an advocate for safe, inclusive learning environments. 

"I recognize my words yesterday do not reflect these actions, and I deeply regret this."