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Task Force Advises UGDSB Cancel Resource Officer Program

Task Force Advises UGDSB Cancel Resource Officer Program

Students in Upper Grand District School Board may soon be seeing police officers less frequently while at school.

On March 23, 2021, the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) received a report and heard a presentation regarding police presence in schools from the associated task force initiated in June 2020. The Board of Trustees established the task force to review the matter and develop recommendations for changes if needed. According to the report, this was in response to leaders and individuals from the community inquiring about the police’s role in the UGDSB in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. 

“Where is the data? Where is the measurement of the impact of policing in schools, positive or negative? Where can we find that? How often is that measurement happening.” expounded consultant Marva Wisdom. “I don’t think we have any information that we could go to parents and say ‘With School Resource Officers in schools, this is what happens. This is what happened last year. This is what is going to happen this year. This is how it has impacted these kids.”

The Police Presence in Schools Task Force was open to the public to join and consisted of three staff members, two trustees, one student trustee, and eight community members. There was no police representation, but communications were maintained throughout the process. UGDSB Superintendent of Education Cheryl Van Ooteghem and Marva Wisdom of Wisdom Consulting facilitated the committee meetings. The task force consulted with police, reviewed presentations, summarized research, gathered community and secondary school student feedback, in addition to analyzing data and available historical background information on the subject. Student feedback included letters provided by the Black Chapter of Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. Overall, the document was 153 pages in length.

“The interpretation of this data is not about intention; it is about impact,” explained Joy Sammy, Workplace Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Manager for the UGDSB.

In the report, the Police Presence in Schools Task Force made multiple recommendations to the Board of Trustees for approval. It specifies that the committee had taken an equity and human rights-based approach. The recommended changes include

  • That the ‘Presentations in Schools Guidelines,’ developed by the Student Support and Program Services department of the UGDSB, be used to assess all police presentations. This would entail that all presentations be reviewed through an equity, anti-racist and anti-oppressive lens.
  • A letter gets distributed to all students and parents in advance of police presentations occurring at the school. This should inform them of the date, time, and purpose of the presentation.
  • That staff collect feedback from students and staff on all police presentations within the classrooms and school. The collection forms would have a grade- and age-appropriate design, with the police providing input and getting survey results.
  • That administrators collect data on all incidents that police respond to at UGDSB schools. This would also comprise police services and board staff meeting and participating in a yearly review of feedback and data collected.
  • That the UGDSB cancels the School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

The School Resource Officer Program was established to work closely with high school administration to promote a learning environment that is safe and positive for students and staff within the school facility. SROs provide guidance and direction to students when needed and engage in class discussions, assemblies, and parent groups. The SRO program’s funding comes from the associated police service budget rather than the school board. In UGDSB schools, SROs said that ‘they respond to crisis intervention calls at schools and act as a conduit between police and schools in a crisis intervention.’ Despite common misconceptions, the School Resource Officer’s purpose is not to enforce rules, gather information, or police the halls. The police services reinforced this message in their discussions with Task Force after the report was released.

“SROs were never signed up to be the enforcers in our schools, and there were times where we as educators had inadvertently put them in that position,” shared Superintendent of Education Cheryl Van Ooteghem. “We all need to take responsibility for this, to learn from this. We need to make changes together, and we need to move forward.”

The task force suggested that data on policing in schools is difficult to find, including with regards to the effectiveness, impact, benefits, and challenges of the School Resource Officer Program. When secondary students from Grades 10 and up were surveyed, results illustrated that most did not have an opinion on the program. Another determination was that the majority of students had not interacted with the School Resource Officer. Other findings from the surveys showed that students ‘in the margins’ experience the most obstructive repercussions of School Resource Officers in secondary schools. Concerning this, the Task Force drew the following conclusions from the data

  • LGBTQIA2S+ identifying students were three times more prone than non-LGBTQIA2S+ identifying students to want SROs dismissed from secondary schools. 
  •  Black students were more likely to have negative experiences with SROs and want SROs removed from secondary schools.
  • Indigenous students had the most exchanges with SROs and were most inclined to feel at least slightly discriminated against.

On the administration side, results were mixed. Three out of twelve administrators surveyed by the Task Force were quite optimistic about the School Resource Officer Program and felt that the program was beneficial. Administrators considered SROs to be positive role models to students and provided support to students and families. An example of this would be SROs providing workshops and education that encompass the law, and the rights youth have when interacting with police. They also claim that officers engage in preventative work and increase safety in the school. Moreover, SROs are a resource for staff. An example of this is SROs assisting during criminal investigations within the school. One UGDSB administrator shared the following with the Task Force

“As an administrator, I feel comfort in knowing that when I find a weapon or drugs during a search, I have support. These are issues that people don’t want to talk about, but the reality is that it happens. We deal with students who possess for trafficking, students who overdose, and bring knives to school. In many of these cases, the officers opt to “divert” instead of assign charges – this allows students to seek further support instead of legal punishment.” 

The majority of administrators surveyed had concerns with the possible outcomes of having ‘unknown officers inexperienced in mental health and youth interacting with their students.’ According to the Task Force, some school administrators said SROs reduce this risk, as these officers likely have been trained and want to be in the school environment. 

“When an officer lacks skill specific to working with youth, especially those with mental health needs or living in the margins or uses fear-based or monitoring tactics instead of de-escalation strategies, harm is done, well-being is seriously impacted, learning is affected and equitable outcomes for all students is not achieved. This is not about intention. It is about impact. The full context of an individual and their community must be taken into account.”

Illustrating this further, administrators had provided examples to the Task Force of a student-police interaction that had ’caused the kid to be triggered and they started shaking.’ Also, there were reported occasions where SROs had built relationships with students to gain informants to ‘solve their crimes,’ and the administrator ‘felt powerless to tell the officer no.’ 

“He was calling kids out of class and ‘using the school’ to make relationships to ‘solve crimes,'” told the administrator. “They come into school – like they own the place.”

Another administrator supposedly had even stronger sentiments against having police in schools overall.

“I don’t want them anywhere near my school, unless I call them… If we don’t change the military model- we can’t expose our kids to that model under which they’re trained. It doesn’t serve the purposes we are doing. When it’s about crime- I’ll call them. They are not trained in mental health…makes my job harder… I’m the person who used to want them in. We need to create a safe environment. We need to think about what police represent to Black and White.”

The report asserts that suspension and expulsion rates, in addition to school climate data, indicate that student safety is not an issue in UGDSB schools and that board staff ‘are doing an effective job in this area.’ When digging into the data, it delineates how there have been twenty and six suspensions for possession and use of a weapon, respectively, between 2015-2020. According to the report, the most common weapons found are knives and scissors. 

“Overall the findings indicate that schools in the Upper Grand are very safe. Over a five year period, from the 2015-2016 to the 2019-2020 school year, there were three expulsions,” declared Joy Sammy.

With violence not being an immediate concern for the school board, Sammy said that research has shown priority may be better placed on fostering a positive school climate instead of more police involvement. The following situation described by a UGDSB student shows that SROs are not always conducive to that goal.

“A few times, the SRO at my school disrupted class to search a classmate for drugs. It was stressful and made me feel extremely uncomfortable in my learning environment, especially since both times, the student in question didn’t have any and was visibly upset after.”

The now-defunct Shelburne Police Service and Dufferin County OPP never dedicated an officer to Centre Dufferin District High School, although police did drop in to conduct foot patrols. Orangeville Police Service, which transitioned to Dufferin County OPP in October 2020, had one officer split between the town’s two secondary schools. For all of Dufferin’s high schools, these policies had been unchanged for over fifteen years. 

When asked about the matter of the School Resource Officer, Orangeville Police Services had provided the following comments to the Task Force. 

“I would recommend that Resource Officers be used only for proactive roles to educate students regarding various crime prevention topics and initiatives and be a resource for staff and parents to consult with when required. Any negative interactions or calls for service should be dealt with by frontline officers. This would help maintain positive relations between the police and the community!” 

Essentially, what results from surveys showed regarding the Safety Resource Officer Program in Upper Grand District School Board was a ‘lack of consistency’ in its implementation. An example of this would be how officers were chosen. In Orangeville, the officer had been determined by the police chief. Wellington County OPP officers intentionally expressed interest in the program, outlining their skills and experience, and were rotated every three-years. Guelph Police Service instituted a comparatively rigorous selection process, involving a panel including the Youth Division’s supervisor, a member of Senior Leadership, and a member of the Human Resources team. Furthermore, a lack of consistency was demonstrated in how stakeholders view the role and responsibilities of the SRO.

“When you have an environment where those who are carrying out the SRO work that is not consistent and they themselves are unsure, and they are put in the positions of being enforcers within schools when they are reluctant,’ revealed Marva Wisdom. “There is no proper accountability in place necessarily, because of the direction that needs to come from the school board itself to policing… That chain is broken.”

Even more surprising was that the Task Force declared that not a single administrator in the Upper Grand District School Board was aware that they were allowed to participate in the School Resource Officer’s evaluation. None of them had reported ever being asked for input by police services either.

“It is a system that is not properly set up and has moved away from what it perhaps was supposed to have been, and policing has recognized that,” reported Wisdom.

UGDSB would not be the first school board to end its School Resource Officer Program. Both Peel District School Board and Hamiton Wentworth District School Board ended it in 2020. Toronto District School Board discontinued the program back in 2017. The OPP is currently conducting a province-wide review of the Safety Resource Officer program as well.

“It is clear from the research, that from the police perspective, the program is meant to build community and humanize police with youths,” said Sammy. “However that the negative impacts of police in schools are disproportionately felt by racialized and marginalized communities.”

At the UGDSB meeting on March 23, trustees decided to give the community a chance to provide more input and deferred the vote until the next board meeting at the end of April. The report noted that Dufferin County was under-represented in community representation in the survey and town halls held to gain input on police in schools.

“I will tell you this, because of the work that I do in working to eliminate systemic racism, there are so many times when someone says ‘I need more data, we need more information’ and my answer is always this, ‘To what end?’ exclaimed Wisdom. 

Reference Links: Task Force Advises UGDSB Cancel Resource Officer Program

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