An extremely thorough review of the Edmonton Catholic School District School Resource Officer program found it was looked well upon by a majority of students, parents and teachers — however the research found big gaps in data and room for improvement.
The 69-page report presented to the Edmonton Catholic trustee meeting on Wednesday was put together by three leading Canadian criminologists — Dr. Sandra Bucerius, Dr. Kanika Samuels, Dr. Scot Wortley — after a comprehensive, 18-month study.
In Edmonton, the SRO program originated in 1979 as a partnership between the Edmonton Police Service, the Edmonton Public School Board and the Edmonton Catholic School Division.
After concerns were raised about the program — including the possibility it may be disproportionately impacting minorities — the EPSB suspended its use of SROs for the 2020-21 school year.
The ECSD continued to have officers in schools as both boards launched reviews of the program.
The report did not aim to establish the program’s effectiveness, but instead aimed to better understand the experiences and impact it has had on the Edmonton Catholic Schools community, including students, parents, teachers, school administration and officers themselves.
The researchers collected data from Edmonton Catholic on past incidents involving SROs and last winter, conducted 20 in-depth interviews with members of the Edmonton Police Service — 17 of which were current school resource officers.
Then between October and December 2021, the researchers surveyed 617 ECSD staff members (including principals and teachers), 736 parents and 5,577 students — more than 60 per cent of the school population.
“It is clear that the ECSD — along with many other school boards — face a difficult question: Should SRO programs be terminated or allowed to continue?” the report’s summary said, adding there was limited evidence to support scrapping it.
The vast majority of teachers, parents and students who participated in the study, regardless of their racial background, had a good opinion of the SRO program and want it retained.
“Thus, a decision to terminate the program would have to be justified by the presence of a relatively small number of community members who feel that the program criminalizes and intimidates students, is biased against minorities, and costs too much.”
By contrast, the report said there is plenty of evidence to suggest the SRO program is popular.
“Many of our respondents feel that the program prevents crime, builds relationships, and makes students feel safe at school. Few feel that the program targets students according to their social or demographic background.”
The report also noted removing SROs wouldn’t mean an end to police in schools — officers would still be called to deal with emergencies and a variety of other social problems.
“Advocates argue that the current SRO program buffers or protects the school community from the harsh realities of regular, patrol-based policing.”
The report said those in support of the program argue the elimination may make things more difficult, not easier, for students who get into trouble.
That said, respondents argued the SRO program can be significantly improved.
Incomplete data of little use to researchers
Edmonton Catholic provided the research team with access to all recorded data on SRO-involved incidents, covering an 11-year period from 2010 to 2021.
The data detailed interactions between students and SROs that resulted in punitive actions such as warnings, suspensions, expulsions, criminal charges or alternative measures.
It also covered a range of activities, including wellness checks, mental health emergencies, as well as investigations into criminal offences such as theft, drug possession and violent crime.
Within the 11-year period, the ECSD reported 2,295 SRO-involved incidents.
The researchers reviewed data provided by the ECSD and said it was disappointing.
The researchers found it provided “no consistent information on the racial background or personal characteristics of students involved in SRO incidents.
“Thus, the data are useless when it comes to examining allegations of differential treatment or racial bias.”
The researchers said the program requires an overhaul on how data is collected, so it’s more detailed and consistent.
Police see ways to improve the program
Chief Dale McFee attended the trustee meeting where the report was presented and praised the researchers’ credentials and neutral approach to the study, as well as the ECSD for taking the lead on the review.
“It’s evident that a team of highly respected academics took great care to ensure a diverse net was cast and an inclusive lens was front and centre,” he said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“Our SRO program is full of dedicated officers who work hard to support their schools and surrounding communities. The information gathered in this study is genuinely valued, and I want to thank all those who were involved or volunteered their time to participate,” McFee said.
“This report is the first review I’ve seen that addresses what we could be doing better and what makes a program of this stature effective.
“There is always room for improvement, and it’s helpful and encouraging to know that this feedback will help the service enhance the SRO program’s already strong foundation.”
The report contained recommendations from police on improving the SRO program, including the need for improved vetting and training to ensure that each individual officer is the right fit for their particular school community.
SROs also pointed out they don’t have a clear job description, which results in officers fulfilling the role in very different ways.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the report said, adding it seemed to be a strength that an SRO — in collaboration with a specific school — has the flexibility to adjust their role depending on the school’s needs.
SROs also agreed there could be better communication about the program’s purpose and more effort made to educate the general public.
“Our participants believe that the program in Edmonton is superior to those in other jurisdictions, because SROs are not split between schools. However, as the great majority of our participants stated, variations in both philosophy and practices between SRO programs, operating in different jurisdictions, are generally not known to the public.”
Some police members recommended having two SROs in schools with more than 2,000 students, to ensure better accessibility.
Students said SROs make them feel safer in school, want more engagement
Students said SROs made then feel safe in school, provided mentorship, offered another adult to talk to for support and conflict resolution, helped students build relationships with law enforcement, and provided a buffer between the school community and regular police.
Students preferred SROs who mingled among the students, visited classes and talked to students in the hallways over those who were mostly in their offices or those who primarily engaged in aggressive enforcement activities, the report found.
Officers who were open, humorous and friendly were well-received.
“Students stressed that they wanted the SROs to visit classrooms, be engaged in school spirit, and ‘be present’ beyond doing parking control.”
“They argued that some SROs were too involved in rule enforcement or spent too much time in their office isolating from students,” the report said.
Few students had negative feedback, the researchers said, but some of the downsides cited by a minority of respondents were feelings of intimidation and being watched, perceived bias, overall distrust in police, discomfort with firearms in school, too few officers and few opportunities to get to know them, and high turnover preventing students from forming relationships with SROs.
Of note, Indigenous and Black students surveyed felt they were treated the same as white students, however the radical minority students were also more likely to pick up on or perceive incidents of discrimination.
Parents wanted more information about the program
The research found parents believed the program could be improved by having school-wide information sessions at the beginning of the year, and potentially after the winter break, to introduce the SRO and explain what the purpose of the program is.
“We believe this is a particularly important suggestion as some parents who participated in the focus groups and surveys actually had little or no idea about the purposes of the program.”
Parents suggested SROs should take on more of a teaching role and rotate through classrooms, having conversations with students about topics like vaping, drugs, online activities, bullying and violence.
Like the students, parents also wanted more informal face-to-face interactions and opportunities for kids to ask officer questions about policing.
“Some parents also suggested that the SROs should regularly visit classrooms and open up the dialogue with students about incidents with police that students might hear about through the news,” the report said, adding it would give students a chance to ask critical questions.
Parents wanted to see the officers stick in their roles long-term and lamented the program’s high turn-over rate.
“This was a particularly crucial point for the parents whose children had frequent interactions with their SROs and tapped into their services for social supports.”
Teachers want long-term SROs more involved in all school activities
The report said the main concern for all teachers is the frequent turn-over, often without much notice.
“Teachers commented on the fact that SROs who are determined to be a “good fit” for their school eventually leave their positions (latest after five years), leaving students who have just developed positive relationships with the particular SRO in a position where they have to build relationships with a new SRO.”
Educators surveyed stressed having the SRO involved in all activities “around the school.”
Examples included before- and after-school parking control, as a way to greet students and potentially connect with caregivers, as well as being involved in recess supervision, teaching classes, coaching sports and coming along on fieldtrips.
Teachers said some parents raised issues with the program, but thought the concerns were rooted not knowing much about it.
Educators suggested meeting the concerns head-on, by inviting parents to meet with the SRO or observe them during school hours.
The research found the more people knew about and had experience with the SRO program, the more positive their attitude towards it was.
Edmonton Catholic Schools trustee Debbie Engel, who has been with the division for about 25 years, had high praise for the thoroughness of the research.
After receiving the report, Edmonton Catholic Schools confirmed the SRO program will continue to operate in schools.
Edmonton Public Schools expects its independent, third-party review will be presented to the board of trustees in November.
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