Edmonton school trustee calls for review of school resource officer program

An Edmonton Public School Board trustee is calling for school resource officers be removed from the job while an independent review of their role is completed. 

Bridget Stirling questions whether armed police have a place in schools

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

An Edmonton Public School Board trustee is calling for school resource officers be removed from the job while an independent review of their role is completed.

At Tuesday's public school board meeting, Ward G trustee Bridget Stirling plans to bring forward a motion that would launch an audit of the school resource officer program, suspending it in the meantime.

"We've never had any sort of significant reporting to the board on the program, its outcomes, its intentions or how effective it actually is in our schools," Stirling said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I find it troubling that we pay a million dollars a year for a program that we've never examined." 

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. 

The review, Stirling said, should focus on the experiences of marginalized students and students of colour who may feel intimidated by armed officers patrolling classrooms. 

If the review determines the program does more harm than good, the program should be suspended permanently, Stirling said. 

"I think we need to think about what's the best way to actually support youth and where we need them to go," she said. "And I'm really not sure the SRO program is doing the best job of getting us there." 

The school resource officer program has been in Edmonton schools since 1989. Today, 29 officers are deployed in 36 schools across the city, including 19 public schools. 

The officers investigate crimes within the student body, make presentations on student safety and work with administration to develop extracurricular programs.

The Toronto District School Board ended its school resource officer program in 2017 after finding it caused some students to feel uncomfortable and even intimidated.

The uniformed officers were replaced largely by youth support workers and other student programming. 

Stirling said Edmonton schools should follow suit. Social workers are better trained to help students, she said. 

"There may be some arguments for wanting students to have an understanding of the police and what they do but we don't have any other professions in our school full time," she said. 

"We don't have full time doctors or lawyers or firefighters in our schools to build those relationships. It's possible to have community organizations and relationships without needing to spend a million dollars a year to have them in your schools full-time." 

    'School-to-prison pipeline fallacy'

    Officers in schools serve a critical community-policing role, said Em Chan, acting staff sergeant for the Edmonton Police Service, School Resource Officer Unit. 

    The officers are there to support victimized and at-risk students and respond quickly in the event of an emergency or criminal activity, he said. 

    "Even this year, we've had people bringing guns and knives to school, and drugs. We've managed shooting and bomb threats. We have violent intruders, so we're perfectly positioned to deal with those and de-escalate quickly." 

    Chan said there is no evidence that students feel intimidated by his officers and any allegations of misconduct among his officers would not be tolerated. 

    They don't want to criminalize students but to help them.

    "I've heard this school-to-prison pipeline fallacy many times in the past few weeks and that's simply not the case," he said. 

    "We have an emphasis on diversion and diverting kids away from a charge while keeping them accountable because we know that one wrong act doesn't define a child." 

    The officers help foster understanding and trust, Chan said, and removing them from the job would be a mistake. He said he welcomes the prospect of a review. 

    "I think what's going to happen is that we're going to come out of this independent research and we're going to confirm the good work that is done in the SRO program.

    "We're not going to rest on our laurels. If the review suggests outcomes that would positively impact our program and our service to youth, those are the things we want to do. We want to keep evolving to serve the community, to serve youth."