Why do we demand police-free schools?

In all areas of society, Black and Indigenous people disproportionately face surveillance, harassment, and violence from police. Police bring these discriminatory practices into schools. These patterns are why so many BIPOC students have negative associations with police officers from an early age.

Police in schools are a key component of what has been referred to as the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”—a set of policies and practices that push students out of school and into the carceral system. Many minor incidents in schools that would not otherwise result in a police report or criminal charges are escalated by police involvement. School Resource Officers (SROs) only force youth into contact with the law, and actively discourage students from overpoliced communities from attendance and participation in school activities.  

While school divisions claim to have received positive feedback on police in schools from staff and students, it's important to understand how policing targets marginalized groups. The prejudicial practices of police unevenly impact the student body and community. For this reason, a vote of confidence from those least affected by policing is meaningless. Our survey intends to center the voices of those directly impacted by police profiling and violence.

How many police work within schools? What is their role?

Presently, there are 18 School Resource Officers working in more than one hundred Winnipeg schools. According to Public Safety Canada, "the role of the School Resource Officer is to provide support to the school community as a whole ... with a focus on prevention and early intervention activities." Practically, this involves the criminalization and profiling of students from overpoliced communities.

Core objectives of the Winnipeg School Division's SRO program include: "making schools safer, helping students solve their problems, educating students about the law, and improving relationships between police and students." These roles offload underfunded counselling roles onto armed and untrained officers, while treating students as a captive audience for unchecked police presentations. Furthermore, these "improved relationships" between police and students do not benefit marginalized students, but serve to strengthen a police presence that is actively harmful to Black and Indigenous communities.

How do proponents of SROs justify this program?

School proponents of police partnerships claim that these programs encourage students to develop "positive attitudes towards our Police Service” and “promote the kind and respectful behaviours we want to see.” But negative attitudes towards the police originate from the negative impact of policing on communities. SRO programs are costly public relations campaigns, focused on image repair and management on behalf of the Winnipeg police. Where students have good reasons to distrust the police, these outreach programs actively deter attendance and involvement in school activities.

Don't police help to keep students and teachers safe?

The Winnipeg Police Service's 2016 Business Plan doesn't even mention safety as an outcome in its discussion of School Resource Officers, preferring to speak of community engagement. A pro-police report on SROs in Winnipeg School Division, conducted between 2012-2014, found that "students who reported feeling very safe inside their schools were most likely to report that having SROs in their schools makes them feel safer," while students who experienced schools as unsafe places felt that SROs made no difference, or made things significantly worse.

This redundancy reveals a serious flaw in the report's approach. Policing discriminates against a minority of students on the basis of race and class. The positive opinion of a majority, who themselves have little or no interaction with the police, is irrelevant to assessing the harm caused by police presence.

What does the research say about the effect of SRO programs in schools?

·      An effect of SROs in school is that students develop better attitudes about SROs, but also a lower level of school connectedness (Theriot, 2016).

·      Interactions with SROs does not improve students’ feeling of safety at school (Theriot & Orme, 2016).

·      A 2020 study found that more SROs leads to a higher number of drug and weapon offenses. The number of offenses persists over a twenty-month period. This implies that a greater number of SROs did not make schools any safer over that period (Gottfredson et al., 2020).

·      A 2019 study found that funding for SROs is associated with a 6 percent increase in middle school discipline rates. As well, there was “suggestive evidence that exposure to a three-year federal grant for school police decreases high school graduation rates by approximately 2.5 percent and college enrollment rates by 4 percent” (Weisburst, 2019, page 339).

What does the research say about the effect of SROs on marginalized students?

·      A 2019 study found that funding for SRO programs results in higher discipline rates for students. Black students were disciplined twice as often as white students, and Hispanic students were disciplined 1.5 times as often as white students (Weisburst, 2019).

·      A 2020 study found higher arrests rates for students, but particularly so for Black students. “These findings may arise because school police and others who are responsible for determining student discipline may be acting on their own implicit biases in their decisions to discipline students” (Homer and Fisher, 2020, page 200).

·      In a mixed methods study of Latina/o students’ perceptions of school securitization, researchers concluded the following: “Latina/o youth want to attend safe schools; but, increased school security, surveillance, and stringent discipline practices may be ineffective and compromise educational progress. In other words, school securitization may come at a cost—the cost being Latina/o youths’ belief in detrimental treatment and diminished perceptions of school justice, fairness, and order and their educational progress” (Peguero, Portillos & González, 2015, page 833).

What does the research say about the effect of SROs on marginalized students in Canada?

A qualitative study by Salole and Abdulle (2015) analyzed the perspectives of Toronto youth on school securitization, primarily Somali and Black students. They found the following:

·      “For research participants, it was the seeming lack of flexibility with regard to enforcement of rules around minor infractions that enhanced youth participants’ feelings of exclusion and detachment from school” (Salole and Abdulle, 2015, page 144).

·      “For youth participants, the consistent presence of police officers in their school often meant an unwelcomed collision of their life in school with their life outside of school… youth participants expressed concerns that it was hard to ‘start fresh’ when everyone was just expecting the worse from them” (Salole and Abdulle, 2015, page 145).

·      For an adult research participant, “the coercive nature of the SRO program undermined her goal of helping students” (Salole and Abdulle, 2015, page 146).

There is a gap in the research concerning how SROs affect marginalized students in Canada, particularly with regards to Indigenous students. This emphasizes the need for an equity-based review to critically evaluate current SRO programs.

What are alternatives to SROs in schools?

In the 2019-2020 school year, school divisions paid $882,817 and the provincial government paid $552,000 to operate School Resource Officer programs in Winnipeg schools. Imagine what schools would be like if this money was devoted to supporting our students through more proactive approaches that center kids and their needs, rather than policing students.

School divisions could choose to prioritize mental health by hiring guidance counsellors who are trained to support the varied needs of students. School divisions could choose to prioritize commitments to equity and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by working to decolonize curriculum and create more inclusive learning environments for students. They could choose to prioritize the physical health of children by investing in breakfast programs that feed hungry children. All of these alternatives offer substantive ways schools could be more inclusive, healthier, and safer places for children and youth.

Instead of inviting police officers into schools, what if local community organizations were invited to offer programming and support student health and well-being? By accessing provincial grants, schools could identify local needs and connect with local organizations, strengthening ties within the community and offering truly responsive programming. Alternatives to the School Resource Officer program exist, if we are willing to reimagine what is possible in schools.

What could that money be used for instead?

Winnipeg School Division spent $449,109 on their 9 SROs. That money could have funded:

  • A breakfast program for all of WSD's kindergarten students.
  • Or: The hourly wages of 10 Library Technicians for a school year - Source
  • Or: The hourly wages of 10 Educational Assistants for a school year - Source
  • Or: Four certified guidance counsellors - Source
  • Or: The installation of an Indigenous medicine garden at all 78 schools in in the WSD, plus the services of an Indigenous Elder to act as consultant.

Seven Oaks School Division spent $184,203 on their 3 SROs during the 2019-2020 school year. As they respond to the pandemic, that money could be funding:

  • 5 face masks for every student from grade 4 to 12.
  • Or: 9 additional bus drivers to ensure more bus routes and better social distancing.
  • Or: 8,500 desk barriers to separate students.
  • Or: 38 additional hours of custodial time to sanitize schools every day.
  • Or: a wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser in every classroom across the division.

Pembina Trails and St. James-Assiniboia School Divisions both spent $99,802 on their two SRO's during the 2019-2020 school year. As they respond to learning needs during a pandemic, that money could have funded the following in each division:

  • 180 laptops or 450 tablets for students who can't afford a device for remote learning.
  • Or: An additional remote learning teacher to instruct immunocompromised students.
  • Or: 44 class sets of textbooks, so students don't have to share resources.
  • Or: An outdoor education coordinator to facilitate learning in outdoor environments, as per provincial pandemic recommendations.

Why now?

As schools reopen amid serious health and safety concerns around COVID-19, we can think of so many ways in which the money spent on behalf of the Winnipeg Police Service could be better allocated. In many cases, teachers must supply their own personal protective equipment, while staffing shortages and poor infrastructure only multiply the risk of re-opening. Police in schools are an enormous and misallocated expense in a time of urgent need.

School resource officers received full pay while schools were closed due to COVID-19—even as Pembina Trails School Division laid off 472 educational assistants, 24 bus drivers, 32 library technicians, and approximately 370 breakfast and lunch program supervisors. During a pandemic, Winnipeg schools are cutting corners on necessary safety measures, while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the illusion of safety offered by police.

Our demands are part of a growing movement across Canada to address the negative effects of police in schools. In June of this year, members of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association introduced a motion to suspend the school liaison officer program and community outreach by police in schools. The same month, trustees on the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board voted to end the district's police liaison program. And in 2017, the Toronto District School Board, the largest in Canada, voted to end a decades-old school resource officer program. This month, trustees on Edmonton’s public school board voted to suspend the city’s school resource officer program and to conduct an independent study of its impact.

In Winnipeg, almost 115,000 people have signed a petition organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, outlining concrete steps for the defunding of the Winnipeg Police Service. Among other important demands, this petition calls unequivocally for schools to cut all ties with police.

The demand for police-free schools is gaining momentum, as a real opportunity for cities to reinvest in education, community, and public health.

What can I do right now?

Contact your school trustee and let them know that you demand the removal of police from schools.

The Case for Police-Free Schools Info Session

Watch our online info session from January 6th, 2021,  hosted by Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie (Waniskatan/Red Rising Magazine) and featuring Andrea Vásquez Jiménez (Latinx, Afro- Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network), Robyn Maynard (author of Policing Black Lives), Ella Taylor (Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg), Sabreina Dahab (Hamilton Students for Justice), and Jennifer Reddy (Vancouver School Board trustee).


We are thankful to the following organizers for their work and inspiration:

JUSTICE4BLACKLIVESWINNIPEG's Demands To Make Winnipeg Safe for All BIPOC:

Sign the Petition
JUSTICE4BLACKLIVESWINNIPEG’s Demands To Make Winnipeg Safe for All BIPOC

#PoliceFreeSchoolsONWide Petition:

Sign the Petition
We Demand Police-Free Schools Ontario Wide!#PoliceFreeSchoolsONWide

Hamilton Students for Justice:

https://twitter.com/HS4JUSTICE