A pair of Edmonton researchers are raising concerns about a decades-old initiative that places police officers in some city schools, arguing it could be creating a “school-to-prison pipeline.” They are also calling for the program’s immediate termination.
Alexandre Da Costa, an associate professor in educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, and local community advocate Bashir Mohamed recently posted the results of their research into Edmonton’s school resource officer program online. The project saw them examine data gleaned from freedom of information requests and look at some other jurisdictions’ experiences with SRO programs.
“We see that the numbers show that the presence of police in schools does have an impact on the criminalization of students,” Da Costa told Global News in an interview on Monday. “When we look at some of the outcomes, that’s what we find.”
Da Costa and Mohamed found that between 2011 and 2021, school resource officers issued 2,068 criminal charges, 679 students’ expulsions had SRO involvement and 5,228 suspensions had SRO involvement. The research also found that 20,963 students were labelled as “offenders” because of the program. The researchers acknowledged that the definition of offenders in these instances is vague, something that troubled them.
In a statement issued to media outlets after Global News spoke with Da Costa, the Edmonton Police Service said offenders, in the context of the SRO program, are “defined as anyone who has either committed a criminal offence or anyone found to be in contravention of provincial statutes or bylaws such as the Education Act or Traffic Safety Act.”
“The term itself, if you think about it — offender — and the number of students that have been labelled that way, that raised some eyebrows for us,” Da Costa said.
He noted that the data he and his report’s co-author acquired showed the total number of “offenders” was different from the total number of “occurrences,” which was different from the total number of incidents reported.
“We don’t really know… which criminal occurrences are leading to charges and then where those charges end up.”
Temitope Oriola is a professor of criminology at the University of Alberta who has also conducted research on such programs and said “the numbers (uncovered in the latest research) were staggering.”
“The number of suspensions, the number of expulsions and the fact that it took a freedom of information request to get these statistics out… In a free, liberal society such as ours, we should have those figures online and regularly updated. It shouldn’t have taken a freedom of information request,” he told Global News.
“I think this is part of the broader concern about the SRO program — the lack of review since its establishment.”
Oriola noted that for such a costly program, it should have a greater degree of transparency about its objectives and whether they are being met as well as what the consequences of the program are. He also said he is concerned about the possibility that minorities are disproportionately negatively affected by SROs.
“There is a balance that has to be struck when it comes to young people,” he said, noting that most young people don’t mature until their 20s and are bound to make mistakes in their youth that should not necessarily lead to potential lifelong impacts.
“The chances of an individual who does not complete high school ending up in the criminal justice system are much higher,” Oriola said. “That is not my personal opinion, that is what the research shows.
“Unless you’re dealing with weapons and violence… (there) is a need to engage the students… See them as kids… who are in need of support.”
The SRO program originated in 1979 as a partnership between the EPS, the Edmonton Public School Board and the Edmonton Catholic School Division. As of May 2020, the researchers found there were 26 SROs operating in high schools and junior high schools in the city.
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 continues to use such officers in schools but both school boards are conducting reviews of the program.
The EPSB told Global News it expects to have the final report, which will also “look at the lived experiences of our Black, Indigenous and People of Colour students,” in November.
The ECSD did not provide a date for when it expects to have a report on its review of the program, but did issue a statement to Global News on Monday.
“Our review of the school resource officer program in Edmonton Catholic Schools is currently underway,” the statement reads. “We have contracted an external research team of three university researchers who have carried out a multi-faceted review, including but not limited to, interviews, focus groups and a survey with students, parents and staff.
“They are in the final stages of the project, and the results and recommendations of the review will be brought forward at an upcoming public meeting of the board.”
Da Costa and Mohamed noted that a glaring lack of demographic information was available on who the students are that are impacted by SROs.
“This project also emphasizes the importance of data and how so many Edmonton institutions justify and maintain systemic racism via the denial of data,” Mohamed writes in the summary of his research.
Mohamed and Da Costa acknowledged that the EPSB has now committed to “developing a strategy to collect race-based and other demographic data.”
Because such data was not available to them, Mohamed and Da Costa looked at figures related to the Toronto District School Board’s SRO program before it was suspended in 2017. The numbers show the SRO program was five times more likely to impact Indigenous students, 3.4 times more likely to impact students with disabilities or special needs and 3.3 times more likely to impact Black students.
“Why has this information not been collected?” Da Costa told Global News. “Would you not want to understand if it’s impacting students differentially?
“(But) we have heard a lot of people telling us their experiences, and that is data.”
Da Costa said he believes, especially in the cases of students, a less punitive way of dealing with harmful behaviours would be more appropriate and argued police officers are not best suited to achieve that goal.
“Police don’t actually address… the causes of (harmful behaviours),” he said. “Overall, it’s not working.”
Oriola also questioned whether police are the best “instrument for dealing with all of these issues.”
“Are we simply putting them on the front lines of issues for which they don’t have training?” he asked.
In its statement to Global News, EPS said “through positive youth engagement activities, we believe SROs build strong positive rapport with the school community.”
“The EPS will continue to work closely with the Edmonton Catholic School Division staff, administration, counsellors and students through the SRO program. This will help ensure a safe learning environment for everyone, which includes a balanced approach between enforcement, education, prevention and intervention.”
Da Costa and Mohamed said they believe the program needs to come to an immediate end.
“We have provided the data,” reads their online report. “Trustees now have the information they need in order to end the school resource officer program.”
Da Costa and Mohamed proposed a number of ideas to tackle harmful and sometimes criminal behaviour from students instead of SROs, including to hire more school counsellors, social workers “grounded in anti-colonial and anti-oppressive practices,” educational assistants, school nurses and coaches.
They also suggested school boards find ways to reduce class sizes so teachers are better able to deal with wide-ranging needs of students, work with legal experts to gain more advice and insight into “particular disciplinary actions” and to fund more athletic and after-school programs which they argue “improve educational and employment outcomes, while reducing the likelihood of students becoming involved in activities that produce harm.”
–With files from Morgan Black, Global News