School resource officer program to stay in public schools until at least September

Despite calls from dozens of members of the public to shut it down, a program that stations police officers in 21 Edmonton public schools will remain active for now.

Lone trustee votes against immediately reconsidering suspension of program

Trisha Estabrooks, board chair, had hoped her colleagues would on Tuesday revisit a recent decision to keep police officers in some Edmonton schools while an independent study looks at the value of school resource officers. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Despite calls from dozens of members of the public to shut it down, a program that stations police officers in 21 Edmonton public schools will remain active for now.

Instead, the Edmonton public school board will reconsider its stance on school resource officers (SRO) at its next meeting, which is scheduled for September.

"I am disappointed," board chair Trisha Estabrooks said after Tuesday's special meeting. "I had hoped that we could give answers and provide some clarity to so many people who have, in the last couple of weeks, reached out to the board of trustees."

A week ago, the board voted to order the first-ever independent study of the school resource officer program, which has placed police officers in some division junior and senior high schools for the last 40 years.

However, trustees couldn't agree last week on whether the program should be suspended while it was under scrutiny. In a split vote, a motion to temporarily remove officers from schools was defeated.

During last week's meeting, trustee Cheryl Johner made racist remarks that prompted public condemnation. The next day, Johner apologized for the comments and announced her resignation from the board

The board also heard last week that some officers assigned as SROs had a disciplinary history the division may not have been aware of.

Trustees got an earful in response and Estabrooks said she wanted a do-over on the program suspension vote. The board held a special meeting Tuesday to accept Johner's resignation, reassign some of her duties and vote on whether they would reconsider the SRO program now, or at its next meeting.

Trustee Ken Gibson was the lone vote against immediately reconsidering the board's decision, saying he needed more information about whether board policies gave them the ability to axe the program.

Farzeen Ather, an Edmonton public graduate who spoke in favour of suspending the program, said she was disappointed and frustrated by the delayed decision.

"This reflects the board poorly and implies that the trustees are using bylaws to further delay this important issue," she said in an interview. "They're using a narrow interpretation of policy to set back a vote that could be, honestly, transformative."

Officers cause anxiety, make students of colour uncomfortable, speakers say

More than 47 members of the public had registered to speak to the board at Tuesday's meeting. Thirty six of them tuned in to speak. Most of the speakers urged the board to end the program. A handful of presenters said they found SROs valuable, and wanted the officers to stay in schools for now.

Many speakers pointed to the role of school police in the "school to prison pipeline," a phenomenon in which disadvantaged children are more often disciplined, rather than receiving social and health supports, in schools.

University of Alberta sociology professor and criminologist Temitope Oriola told the board students marginalized and punished in school are more likely to drop out. Students who drop out of school have a higher chance of committing crimes.

Several speakers at a Tuesday school board meeting said social workers and mental health therapists could do all of the positive work school resource officers do, without investigating students for potential crimes. (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

Ather said in her three years at J. Percy Page High School, she saw black and brown students more frequently coming out of the SRO's office 

"Schools are often the first interaction black and brown students have with the criminal justice system," she told the board. "Police intervention at such an impressionable age can often escalate small incidents to violent criminal situations. We want support systems, not fear of incarceration."

Speaker Ayantu Abduro said she founded an anti-racism group at her high school to address uncomfortable issues of inequality no one wanted to talk about. Students were intimidated by the officers, she said.

"I believe that the SRO program has not promoted a safe school system but has created a prison where often impoverished and minority children are targeted," she said. "Many of today's youth are afraid to go to school because of the invisible target they have on their back as soon as they walk through the building."

Speaker Claire Brown, who had graduated from an Edmonton Catholic high school, said black students were "trained to avoid the police" at her school for their own safety. An officer posted at the school's entrance caused anxiety and stress, she said.

"I do recall whenever our black friends, especially our male friends, whenever they would visit the school, just their mere presence in the parking lot was a problem," Brown said. "They would be rudely dismissed. We felt overpoliced. We felt picked on. And that's just not OK."

Many speakers said social workers and mental health therapists could do some of the same support and education work currently done by SROs. People argued those professionals were better trained for that work, cost less money and wouldn't criminalize children.

The board pays about $1 million per year to cover half the salaries of 17 officers for 10 months of the year.

Speaker Charlotte Thomasson said trustees' default should be to end the program until they can find proof of its value.

"If you are unsure whether a program causes harm to students, that is reason alone to suspend the program," she said. "Why would you continue with a program that even has a shred of possibility that it is causing trauma to children?"

Although Estabrooks had initially voted to keep officers in schools, she said feedback she's heard during the last week has prompted her to reconsider her decision.

She told reporters after the meeting the community has been vociferous and will likely continue to push for action. The board can't put this off, she said.

"I can certainly imagine how it would feel to come and speak at the public board and to walk away and not get the answer that you want today," she said. "That must feel like we haven't been listening."

The board is next scheduled to meet on Sept. 8, when trustees will reconsider their positions on the program.

After schools closed to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, most SROs were reassigned back to the Edmonton Police Service, according to the school division.