Motion to remove police resource officers from Edmonton public schools narrowly defeated

Edmonton Public School Board trustees on Tuesday narrowly voted against immediately removing school resource officers from schools.

Trustees unanimously support first-ever study of school resource officer program

Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted against immediately removing police resource officers from schools. (Codie McLachlan)

A motion from trustee Bridget Stirling to immediately remove school resource officers from Edmonton's public schools was narrowly defeated at Tuesday's public meeting.

With one trustee absent, others were deadlocked at four votes for and four votes against removing the officers, meaning the motion failed.

Stirling, however, got unanimous support for the commissioning of an independent study of the efficacy of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. If the study determines the program does more harm than good, the board will consider whether to permanently suspend it.

Police officers are deployed in 19 public schools in Edmonton. They investigate crimes within the student body, make presentations on student safety and work with administration to develop extracurricular programs.

Stirling said there had never been a review of the effectiveness of the program since its establishment in 1979, despite it costing the school board about $1 million a year.

She and other trustees were also troubled by evidence that several Edmonton police officers with serious disciplinary records had served as school resource officers, even after they had been found guilty. 

"I think if we had any other partner that was sending in members of their organization without being honest and transparent with us about violent incidents in that person's history, [including] allegations of abuse against vulnerable populations," Stirling said, "I don't know if we would continue having that partner in our school until we found out what was going on."

Other trustees said there was insufficient evidence that the resource officers had caused harm to students. They said they had to listen to principals and teachers who strongly supported the program.

Value of officers in schools questioned 

The role of armed officers in schools has become the subject of debate as jurisdictions across North America consider defunding law enforcement services and grapple with concerns around systemic racism and use of force in policing.

School boards in Toronto and Hamilton have ended their school resource programs and instead diverted the resources to social workers and other civilian support staff.

At Tuesday's meeting, trustee Michael Janz said the school board should not be spending any money on policing in schools, noting school boards in Toronto did not pay for police resource officers.

Resource officers had bad disciplinary records

The vote on the motion followed short presentations from several members of the public.

Speaker after speaker called for the program to be abolished and several said its funding should be diverted to other programs to support students. 

Community organizer Paige Gorsak told trustees about how several school resource officers had serious disciplinary records.

Gorsak referenced an incident in which two officers picked up homeless Indigenous people off Whyte Avenue in what became known as the "sweatbox" incident.

They were packed into a sweltering van and dumped in north Edmonton. Both officers were school resource officers at that time and continued to work in schools during the investigation, Gorsak said. 

The role of armed police officers in schools has become the subject of renewed debate. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Gorsak said a cursory Internet search revealed several other resource officers were involved in violent incidents, including one in which a woman was kicked in the head during an arrest.

"In many of these cases, these officers became [school resource officers] after these public scandals," Gorsak said, "suggesting that our schools are receiving the worst among cops, rather than those truly committed to bettering our communities."

Anti-racism activist Bashir Mohamed told trustees the program "is often framed as being about relationship building and student engagement. The data I have found shows that this is false. The SRO program is about active policing in our schools."

Mohamed stressed there had been no public review of the program since its inception.

He had previously sought data about the program through a Freedom of Information request to the Edmonton Police Service and was quoted a $64,000 processing fee. 

"This is information that you should already have," Mohamed said. 

He later added that "isn't it irresponsible to spend a million dollars on a program that has no public review? Isn't it even more irresponsible and dangerous to expand such a program to junior highs again without review? Let me be frank, there is no evidence to support the program."

Another speaker, Batul Gulamhusein, questioned why the school board was investing in the program instead of, for example, "mental health counsellors, more teachers, and smaller classes — things our students actually need."

Baiyinah Syed, an education student at the University of Alberta, said the removal of police from schools was important to her. 

"I want to make my classroom and school community safe and inclusive for all my students."

Officers are mentors, friends

One of the speakers, Susan Ketteringham, a school secretary at a north Edmonton school, has worked with school resource officers and supports the program. 

"My observations after spending 40 plus hours per week, 10 months a year working alongside these individuals is that while their job title is constable, it should actually be coach, mentor, counsellor, adviser, or cheerleader, confidant, protector, friend, surrogate, problem-solver, lifesaver."

But one former student, Farris Sobhani, said his experience with the resource officers was that "officers don't view students as students."

"They view them as potential threats and criminals. Myself and many other people who went through [Edmonton public schools] have extremely negative experiences with overly aggressive SROs who undoubtedly targeted Black, brown, and Indigenous students," Sobhani said. 

"This overt racism and constant suspicion of criminality is not a healthy thing for the youth of this city to experience and they're extremely important formative years. The SRO program is a racist program."