Sask. parents, students push for defunding of programs placing armed police in schools
Police say longstanding community resource programs help build relationships
Parents, students, academics and others are pushing for an end to programs that place armed police officers in Saskatchewan schools.
Critics say the school officers are intimidating, especially for Indigenous, Black and newcomer students. They say the money — more than $1 million in each of Saskatoon and Regina — would be better spent on mental health workers or school sports programs.
"It made me feel uneasy. Me and a number of my friends, we were uncomfortable, almost like that 'walking on eggshells' feeling," said Chilombo Mwela, a 2015 graduate of Regina's Dr. Martin LeBoldus Catholic High School.
Mwela, now a University of Regina student, was one of the organizers of recent Black Lives Matter rallies. Many in the movement are calling for defunding police and shifting money elsewhere. Mwela said eliminating the police school liason programs are a good place to start.
"Schools can already be an intimidating place. Let's make this change and help uplift everyone," she said.
Saskatoon police's school resource officer program is staffed by seven constables and one sergeant, according to the service's website. In Regina, 13 constables and one sergeant are assigned to the school program.
They spend time in elementary and high schools. Both programs have been operating for decades.
The stated goals are to improve relationships with the students and staff. Police are there to educate students about safety, substance abuse and life skills, according to the website. They're also there to gather intelligence and conduct investigations.
Saskatoon and Regina police officials said they're proud of the school programs and haven't received any official complaints about them. They said they welcome feedback and are willing to listen to any concerns.
"Our school resource officer program has evolved into one of our most positive and proactive programs in the city," Elizabeth Popowich of the Regina Police Service said in an email. "That said, if there are community members who have concerns or are fearful, they are encouraged to either contact us directly, or contact the school boards to voice their concerns."
Saskatoon parent Sarah Tut said officers should at least be unarmed when they're in the schools. She said bringing firearms into schools when there's no imminent threat or incident is wrong.
Police officials said uniformed officers need to be fully equipped at all times in case they need to answer a serious call.
Tut said she agrees with Mwela in the long term. She'd like officers out of the schools unless they're called.
"I think it's very intimidating for young people so for sure I would not say it's a great idea," said Tut, whose son attends a Saskatoon high school.
She said schools are desperately short of mental health workers, educational assistants, cultural coordinators and English-as-an-additional-language instructors. That money could go a long way, she said.
University of Regina assistant professor Michelle Stewart said it costs roughly $100,000 per year to fund the average police officer. Taxpayers are also paying for their equipment and vehicles. The schools also contribute office space and other resources. That adds up to more than $1 million each in Saskatoon and Regina, she said.
"That's a significant investment. What would that amount mean to youth programs, after-school programs, in-school supports for teachers? These can all happen," Stewart said.
"Students have a right to be educated in a space where they're not intimidated."
Stewart said she's also concerned that police are allowed to gather intelligence and question students in schools without a parent or lawyer present.
"These are questions that should concern everyone," she said.