Community activists want more action following school trustee resignation

Two community activists say making public schools a better space for refugees and newcomers requires more supports, not police.

'These are the right resources to provide, we don't need the police officers.'

Cheryl Johner resigned as a public school trustee after saying refugee students in schools can sometimes be violent. (Twitter)

Two community activists say more needs to be done to make public schools better for newcomers, in the wake of the resignation of a board trustee over comments she made about refugees and violence.

Cheryl Johner, the Edmonton Public School Board trustee for Ward A, resigned Wednesday after making the comments during a discussion about school resource officers at a Tuesday night trustee meeting.

"All they've known is violence," Johner said, referring to students who come to Edmonton as refugees. "When those students sometimes enter our schools, they can be violent there as well.

"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 were widely derided as racist, including by board chair Trisha Estabrooks.

Ahmed Ali, a community organizer who ran against Johner for the trustee position in 2017, said the comments didn't necessarily strike him as unusual.

"It's something that you hear often growing up as a person who is a refugee," the city's former poet laureate said during an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active

"It reminded me of all the challenges that I had to overcome in order just to be here."

Ali grew up a refugee in north Edmonton's Dickinsfield neighbourhood, which falls within Ward A. He said the area has a lot of refugees from Somalia and elsewhere.

"It's just a demographic of youth who are just trying to achieve," he said. 

Ahmed Ali ran against Johner for the trustee position in 2017. (Nicholas Yee)

Joseph Luri, another former trustee candidate who works to help newcomers settle, says Johner's comments made him feel sick.

"They are the ones who have gone through violence, they're not violent," he said. "That is just wrong to come to that conclusion."

The board voted Tuesday to review the school resource officer program but not to halt it at this point.

Ali equated the move to neglecting to rinse dishes before placing them in a dishwasher.

"We're talking about a program that there's no data supporting it," he said. "And we are allocating funds towards a program that has zero data on the good premises of it."

Luri said the $1 million allocated to the program would be better spent elsewhere, such as for counsellors to help refugees battling trauma or language supports for newcomers.

"These are the right resources to provide, we don't need the police officers."

'A symptom of the issue'

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

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

Ali said he has seen few instances where individuals hold themselves accountable for racist behaviours. Johner's decision to step down was important, he said, but she is "just a symptom of the issue.

"No matter how many resources we allocate to the system, if the system is not set up to assist our students and to assist people of colour ... what we're doing is we're slowing down the progress of our humanity."

If there is a byelection for Johner's former position, Ali says he has no plans to run but is ready to support the right candidate.

"I would prefer it to be a black woman," he said. "Because we need more representation on that front as well."

Luri says he would like to see someone from the community who will have an opinion different than the majority of the board.

"We need somebody who the students will see that is part of us."

The board has called a special meeting for Tuesday, during which actions around Johner's resignation will be discussed. The board will also discuss a motion to reconsider suspending the SRO program, pending the completion of the review and investigation.