The debate about school resource officers is back in the spotlight after a series of violent crimes involving teenage students in both Edmonton and Calgary.
“We’re seeing an influx in youth crime,” said Mount Royal University criminologist Ritesh Narayan.
He says early intervention is key to addressing this issue. Narayan is pushing for both school resource officers and more social workers in Alberta schools.
“I think police resource officers have a very important role to play in schools,” Narayan told Global News on Monday.
“I find — and it’s supported by really good research — that police officers and resource officers play an integral role in building the bridge between youth and law enforcement.
“However, only having police resource officers in schools is not sufficient because police are law enforcement; they’re not social workers.
“So what I would advocate for is yes, police officers, resource officers, plus social workers working hand in hand in schools,” Narayan said.
A 16-year-old boy was fatally stabbed outside McNally High School in Edmonton on April 8. Seven youths between the ages of 14 and 17 have been charged with second-degree murder.
A 16-year-old Calgary boy was found dead on March 31. The death of the Grade 10 St. Francis High School student is being investigated as homicide.
On April 25, a student was airlifted to hospital in critical condition after a stabbing at Pigeon Lake Regional School.
Narayan says historically, youth crime — especially when it comes to violent crimes — has not been a major problem statistically. Young people are mostly involved in property crimes, he explained. These recent cases of youth violent crime are considered “extraordinary and quite concerning.”
“If we do not take control of these things, what we’re going to have is a delinquent subculture in places like Edmonton and Calgary, and that can be very concerning — things we’ve seen in some American cities that are plagued by youth crime.
“If you don’t want to become the next Detroit… we need to start taking really good care how we’re developing our city, how we’re planning our city and making it affordable to live in our city.”
He says when there’s heightened social disorganization, it’s crucial to have interventions and social supports as early as possible.
“Hopefully school teachers are able to recognize signs. But again, school teachers have their plates filled, so therefore we rely on counsellors. And usually, depending on your school region, you could have one counsellor serving 500 students. So there’s lack of those kinds of resources as well, lack of social workers.
“I’d love to see more social workers on campuses and schools,” Narayan said.
Most of Alberta’s large school districts have social workers on staff but they’re shared between schools.
During a police commission meeting on April 21, Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee said the EPS sees “extreme value” in the SRO program, but won’t force police presence in schools where it’s not wanted.
“We certainly think there’s extreme value being in schools, building relationships with the youth… helping them stay on the right course… If we can play a role in getting the kids on that path and youth on that path to be contributing members and have a healthy lifestyle, I think it’s absolutely critical that we do. But again, we can’t force ourselves into somewhere where some might not want us.
“There’s very few charges that are laid in a school in relation to criminal (offences), although there are some,” he said.
He added if the school division doesn’t want SROs in their schools, “we’re not going to force ourselves into the schools.”
Edmonton Public School Board
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 continues to use such officers in schools but both school boards are conducting reviews of the program.
On Monday, an EPSB spokesperson said the independent, third-party review is expected to be presented to the board of trustees in November 2022.
“Our division currently has 14 social workers providing support to schools through our nine School Linked teams, which every school can access to address student needs,” Megan Normandeau said in an email. “These school linked teams are assigned to a group of schools and work directly with principals when students or families require a wide range of specialized supports.
“One of the primary responsibilities of these social worker roles is to work with principals and school staff to support students with social, emotional, behavioural and mental health needs. This includes family support, identifying and removing barriers to learning, as well as the provision of connecting families to other comprehensive supports,” she explained.
Edmonton Public Schools previously said the SRO program cost the division about $1 million for the 2018-19 year, $762,615 for the 2019-20 year.
Edmonton Catholic School District
An Edmonton Catholic Schools spokesperson told Global News on Monday that its review of the SRO program is “in its final stages.
“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,” Christine Meadows said.
“The results and recommendations of the review will be brought forward at an upcoming public meeting of the board.”
She also said ECSD has more than 50 Family School Liaison Workers (FSLW) “who work as part of a multi-disciplinary team in conjunction with other support personnel in schools to provide the best possible services to meet student and family needs.
“All our FSLWs are registered social workers. It is very commonplace for our FSLWs to work with SROs and other school-based personnel.”
Chief McFee added April 21 that EPS has fully cooperated with the Catholic schools’ independent review of the SRO program.
“We’re hoping that that data will come out and tell us exactly what it is we can do better or how it’s working and what the value is.”
Calgary Board of Education
In Calgary, the SRO program started in 1976 — a collaboration between local school boards and the Calgary Police Service.
“SROs are trained to work with youth and children, and support safety in schools in a number of ways, including through community relations and relationship building, education and instruction, intervention and prevention, mentorship, and law enforcement,” spokesperson Megan Geyer said.
She said CBE schools “may also access support from social workers and other professionals like psychologists, therapists, behaviour support workers, family liaison workers, and Diversity and Learning Support Advisors.
“Social workers support students and families with navigating a variety of concerns, including mental health supports, access to health care, food security, access to housing and support for many other needs,” Geyer said.
In 2020, an independent review of the SRO program was announced by CPS as part of a larger evaluation of the program, one of the steps Calgary police are taking around anti-racism.
However, at a Calgary Police Commission meeting in November 2021, police said the initial online survey didn’t produce the quality of data CPS was hoping for in order to address changes to the program and police would “re-engage” with more students in 2022.
An oversight board will be struck to put that action plan into place, with the aim to transform the SRO program by the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.
While Calgary police have 38 SRO positions in the system among public and separate school divisions, only 23 CPS members are deployed to schools.
Calgary Catholic School District
The SRO program, in partnership with the Calgary Police Service, has been in place in the Calgary Catholic School District for more than 40 years.
“CCSD does have both school resource officers and social workers available to students and families in our district,” spokesperson Felicia Zuniga told Global News. And, Zuniga said the school community continues to support SROs in schools.
“Creating school communities in which all students feel a sense of belonging is of utmost importance,” the CCSD statement reads. “This is one of the major impacts of our SROs: allowing students to interact with a police officer that is really a part of the school and is available to talk to students, provide guidance and act as a role model.”
In September 2021, a new Mental Health and Wellness team was introduced at CCSD. It includes wellness workers, Indigenous wellness workers and multicultural liaison workers.
“Our district also has counsellors and social workers available to our students and families,” Zuniga said.