Kitchener-Waterloo

Police won't be in Waterloo region public schools until after review, says board

The school resource officer program is on pause at the Waterloo Region District School Board pending a review of the program, the board announced at a trustees’ meeting Monday evening.

School resource officer program will be reviewed following feedback from community

In 2019, the Waterloo Regional Police Service had 10 school resource officers assigned to local schools. (Colin Butler/CBC)

The school resource officer program is on pause at the Waterloo Region District School Board pending a review of the program, the board announced at a trustees' meeting Monday evening.

The move comes after organizers with the African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region and other groups called for police defunding and an end to the school resource officer (SRO) program and a community outreach program with Waterloo regional police. 

Both programs increase the risk of police surveillance of young people, said ACB Network advisory committee member Ruth Cameron during an earlier interview with CBC News. 

"How are you going to engage in learning, in a space that is supposed to be a safe space ... when you experience that kind of fear, humiliation and stigmatization in a learning environment?" Cameron said. 

Speaking to The Morning Edition guest host Julianne Hazlewood on Tuesday, Cameron Heights Collegiate student Dagmawit Worku said putting the resource officer program on hold is a positive step.

"That program often traumatizes and antagonizes Black students and people of color," said Worku, who is co-head of her school's Black Student Union. She added that funding for the program would be better spent on counselors and mental health workers.

"In order for the schools to create a safe, inclusive space for students to grow and learn, they need to understand that having resource officers, ideally it would be a nice idea, but considering the social climate we're in, I don't think it's possible."

Concerns about safety, training

During the meeting Monday, the board's human rights and equity advisor, Deepa Ahluwalia, outlined a number of concerns the community had raised about the program.

Many students don't feel safe with police in their hallways, she said.  One student shared that, while going through a mental health crisis, she was scared by the presence of an armed officer.

By putting police officers in schools, Ahluwalia said, community members worry this encourages officers to act. 

"They are concerned that school staff have called their SRO for situations that did not warrant their involvement," said Ahluwalia.

Criminalization of student behaviour is another worry, she said. Without proper training, Ahluwalia noted that officers could worsen anti-Black racism, and disproportionately punish students due to racial bias.

10 WRPS officers assigned to 240 schools

"Data from other boards are clear — there is a disproportionate number of racialized bodies that experience disciplinary action," said Ahluwalia​​​​​​.

There's also the question if money spent on the program could be better put toward student well-being and mental health, she said.

As part of the review, Ahluwalia said data collected by police should be shared with the board and the community.

The police service has indicated it's willing to do this, said director of education John Bryant, at the virtual meeting.

An update on the program is expected at the first September board of trustees meeting.

The Waterloo District Catholic School Board also plans to review its involvement in the school resource officer program in the fall, the board's chief managing officer said in a statement. 

"We wish to be very thoughtful and listen carefully as we make decisions moving forward," John Shewchuk wrote. 

Meanwhile, the group HWDSB Kids Need Help is calling for the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to end its version of a program that involves police officers in schools.

The Toronto District School Board ended its school resource officer program in 2017.

In 2019, the Waterloo Regional Police Service had 10 SROs assigned to 240 secondary and elementary schools in Waterloo region, according to the service's most recent annual report. 

Chief Bryan Larkin has said the purpose of the program was to build relationships with students and to facilitate recruitment of young people.

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