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Edmonton Public Schools opens the door to return police officers to schools

Edmonton public school trustees have re-opened the door to stationing police officers in schools, more than three years after suspending the long-standing program.

Trustee Marsha Nelson, who put forward the motion, said the results of an academic study, consultations with principals and students and a spring survey made it clear people valued the officers in schools.

“For those who have doubts about having police play a role in our schools, I hear your concerns, too,” Nelson said. “But I’m confident that our staff will work with all of our students, and help them, and all of our students, feel safe.”

The decision deeply divided the eight board trustees, who voted 5-3 in favour of bringing back police.

After each trustee made their stance clear, several observers walked out of the crowded meeting chambers Tuesday.

The board did not decide whether the program would look like the school resource officer (SRO) model that was put in place in 1979, or when police would return to schools. Superintendent Darrel Robertson said it is each principal’s choice whether they want an officer.

At a special meeting of the board Tuesday, 32 members of the public spoke, including 26 people who opposed the police’s return.

Edmonton parent Robyn Tyler said the board failed to try other approaches to improve school safety after the superintendent paused the SRO program in September 2020.

Many speakers wanted the board to invest more in teachers, smaller class sizes, educational assistants, social workers, mental health therapists, meal programs and other proactive measures to keep children from running afoul of the law.

“Bringing back this program sounds like giving up to me,” Tyler said.

Dilraj Grewal, a master of education student, said he spent his school years cowering in school hallways, feeling like a “dangerous brown kid” who was trying to avoid the police.

Officers searched lockers and demanded to see identification seemingly at random, he said, which was “embarrassing and violating.”

Other speakers opposed to the program cited research about police in schools leading to the criminalization of children, and lack of evidence that school-based police prevent crime.

The school division previously covered half the cost of the SRO program, for about $1.2 million per year. It’s unclear how much a new program would cost or who would pay.

School administrators report weapons and violence

Hoping for a return of the SROs were people who have worked as school administrators, including Eleise Johnston, who said the SRO she worked with at Harry Ainlay high school built trusting relationships with students and their families.

Johnston was among speakers troubled by violence and crime in schools. She said at her school there was an axe attack, and assaults with knives, bats, belts, BB guns and airsoft guns. Staff and students reported fights between current and former students, gang activity, drug deals, and sexual assault.

“We are not trained or equipped to deal with these situations,” she said.

Robertson later said the division does not have data, nor the authority to collect data, on violence or weapons in schools.

Edmonton Catholic Schools still has its SRO program with 13 officers working in 16 schools.

Trustees Marcia Hole, Saadiq Sumar and Trisha Estabrooks were the three to oppose the return of police.

Estabrooks said the board should assign more weight to the perspectives of the disproportionately high number of racialized students who reported harassment, feeling watched, sexism and assault at the hands of SROs.

A winter survey of students, staff and families found the vast majority feel safe in most school spaces, she said.

Julie Kusiek, Edmonton public school board chair
Edmonton public school board chair Julie Kusiek said trustees considered staff concerns about school safety when deciding to reintroduce police officers to schools. (Janet French/CBC)

Estabrooks said it gave her “great pause” that police service employees aren’t accountable to the superintendent.

“Because they have such authority and great power in our schools, working with our children,” she said.

Board chair Julie Kusiek, who said during the 2021 civic election campaign that she did not support returning SROs to school, voted in favour of re-introducing police.

Kusiek said trustees have more information now, including reports, consultations and feedback. She told reporters the “changing nature of safety in our schools” and the need for stronger ties between school administrators and the police convinced her to be open to their return.

Glynnis Lieb, parent of six racialized sons attending public schools, said she was devastated by the board’s decision.

“This isn’t the result of an open mind,” she said. “It’s the result of pressure. It’s a result of fear. And when we’re fearful, we fall back to what we’re comfortable with.”

Parent Dia Da Costa said the board’s decision signals to children like hers that their fear and concern about police in schools don’t matter.

“SROs are now being asked to become this superhero, champ magician person that will do all of it,” she said. “Somehow, be everywhere, all at once.”

The board also voted Tuesday to hand authority to make decisions about policing and security back to the superintendent. 

In a statement, Edmonton police spokesperson Scott Pattison said the service is pleased by the board’s decision and looks forward to talking to the school division about how a future program would look.

“Our SRO unit is a team of highly passionate and dedicated officers that work diligently with their schools and surrounding communities to support its young people,” the police statement said.

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