Policing-Free Schools director Andrea Vásquez Jiménez says motions to bring back policing in schools has further eroded the trust of Black and other marginalized communities in the system. (Photo courtesy Andrea Vásquez Jiménez)

Advocates continue fight for police-free schools

  • June 29, 2022

Advocates for police-free schools were disheartened in June after a motion put forth by York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) trustee Dino Giuliani called for retired officers to visit schools to talk to students about themes like bullying and making good choices.

The new program would be similar to curriculum in the Values, Influences and Peers program, which was halted and removed a police presence in schools.

Many school boards did away with this program as well as School Resource Officers (SRO)—police officers who maintain a presence in schools — in response to concerns expressed by over-policed groups. That program has been on pause in the YCDSB since September. 

Advocates have expressed frustration with what they say is a continuous effort to bring police back into school ignoring evidence and the concerns of marginalized students. 

An analysis of police in schools programs by researchers at the University of Alberta has found that the use of SROs is unjustified. A review of SRO programs in Edmonton Catholic Schools found that while upwards of 90 per cent of school staff and 80 per cent of parents and students supported keeping SROs, nearly 20 per cent of Black and Indigenous students reported feeling targeted, compared to just 11.5 per cent of students who identified as white or other racial backgrounds.

 YCDSB director of education Domenic Scuglia says while the board hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of bringing police in schools programs back, it is conducting a review of policing programs in conjunction with the York Regional Police and the local public board to reimagine what the SRO program could look like in the future, if it exists at all. The review is projected to take a year but could be longer. 

“There’s lot of data out there but we don’t have data specific to our own kids in our schools,” said Scuglia. “We have to collect that data first and it has to be data that we disaggregate and focus specifically on our racialized communities to see how they’re performing in our schools. Are they the ones being pulled over by police more frequently? Are they the ones being suspended? We suspect that’s the case because that’s the data in other jurisdictions, but I can’t confirm that until we check our own data.”

Researchers and advocates have observed school boards have been trying to bring back these programs under different names, with different sets of rules governing the program. These measures, despite the rebrand, put police back in schools interacting with students which advocates say has been problematic. 

The Halton Catholic District School Board recently passed a motion to un-pause their police in school program.

“You often see institutions taking some of that feedback and saying that they’re committed to addressing anti-black racism,” said Alexandre Da Costa, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta who is also behind an Edmonton SRO Research Project. 

“If you are committed to addressing that, you really must have other types of programs that don’t involve police, to create caring, healthy and equitable schools for students. … And for some reason they want to renew these programs and they’re trying to do it under the fly.”

Efforts to resume police in schools’ programs despite evidence has to do with the association with police presence with a particular understanding of safety, says Da Costa. Over the past 30 to 40 years community policing has arisen as a strategy to change the police image from agencies targeting the working class, immigrants and racialized people. This went along with public relations campaigns to paint the police in a more positive fashion. 

“The evidence is kind of unclear as to whether these efforts at crime prevention that are more proactive, have an effect on school violence,” said Da Costa. “The evidence is inconclusive as to whether police actually help make schools safer.”

Police in schools are a symptom of a larger question around the shrinking public funding. Due to budget cuts and shortage of educational assistance, police officers are being used to fill in the gaps. They are often portrayed as mentors, counsellors, even filling in as sports coaches, he said. 

“Some schools, in the research in Toronto (by scholar Gita Rao Madan), were showing that young kids at school would say, ‘Well if I don’t have a police officer at the school, we won’t have a football team,’ because they don’t have enough money to pay whatever little stipend a coach can get or to pay a school staff to do that coaching. Without the SRO, many schools might not have some of these programs. So then it’s like, okay, well we need the SRO when in actuality you need coaches.”

Policing-Free Schools director Andrea Vásquez Jiménez says the motions to bring back policing in schools shows a lack of commitment to pursue change and has further eroded Black and other marginalized communities trust in the system. 

“When there’s an overreliance on infrastructures, policies, practices and culture that is rooted in policing, in many instances people within educational spaces may not even see the humanity of the students that they are there to serve,” said Vásquez Jiménez. “Ultimately having healthy, equitable, transformative, policing-free schools actually means that you’re upholding human rights. You’re upholding an equity lens and you’re uplifting life-affirming educational spaces, that are both healing and where students can learn.”

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