WINNIPEG COPS STILL LIKE IT. More and more teachers, parents and students don’t. Their stories about why they don't may be the end of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program—a program that puts uniformed and armed cops on patrol in school corridors.
Activists in the Police-Free Schools Winnipeg (PFSW) group recently won a call for a review of the SRO program in one of six Winnipeg school divisions—even after the city renewed the $8.1 million contract to put 19 cops in schools across the city.
PFSW wanted to stall renewal of the SRO contract until city council got a report on why Toronto and Hamilton ended their SRO programs. The city refused. PFSW shifted their sights to the school divisions and individual school trustees. The strategy worked.
Winnipeg School Division trustees voted to delay their contract renewal of the 18-year old SRO program pending a review by the division’s finance committee.
Ready to listen
“We just want people to know we heard, we’re listening, we’re trying to be respectful and thoughtful in our response,” said Betty Edel, chairwoman of the division board of trustees.
That was the primary objective of their strategy says Cam Scott, a community organzer with PFSW.
“We led with a storytelling campaign because we wanted to lift up voices that are systematically excluded from these conversations,” says Scott.
“We gathered a lot of momentum online. And since then we have been meeting with school boards, talking to school trustees, doing telephone campaigns and a lot of people have come on board.”
Scott says there are basically two types of stories: “There are stories of direct police overreach, of physical and psychological abuse: such as, students profiled in hallways, students handcuffed and thrown against police cars without ever being charged with anything—really disturbing stuff.
“There are also many many stories about unseen effects,” says Scott, “where people experience extreme discomfort because of the police in the halls and wind up avoiding school all together.”
Unseen and unwanted effects
PFSW community organizer Daniel Friesen says the SRO program is no more than “a public relations campaign for the police to go into schools and reinforce their power in the community and gives administrators another way to deal with students who have social or behaviour issues that they no longer have the resources to handle.”
Friesen recalls: “One story that reveals a lot about the unseen and unwanted effects of the program came from students who were newcomers to Canada whose only relationship with police was positive due to encounters at school. Unfortunately, this made them unprepared for the disrespect they got from police out in the street.”
Police killings of Indigenous people in Winnipeg are all too common. Just last spring police killed three Indigenous people in three separate incidents in 10 days.
“We see policing as a prejudicial practice, full stop,” says Scott. “There was a poll here recently that pointed up that a large, large number of people here want the police defunded. The Justice for Black Lives petition has more than 115,000 signatures.”
“These kinds of police-in-school programs have been snuck in all across Canada without any community consultation or input,” says PFWS community organizer Irene Bindi, “which is a major point here with us.”
Police surveil, intimidate
Bindi points out police aren’t trained to handle situations with children with disabilities, or newcomers, or children with behavioural issues. The result, she says, is “a criminalization of conflict, even though there are staff who are qualified to deal with these situations. So, it makes absolutely no sense to have police brought into these situations.
“Police surveil. They intimidate. These are the things that come out in the stories again and again.”
According to PFSW the ultimate irony is that a program designed to keep kids in school all too often does the exact reverse.
The group says the stories they have collected provide “irrefutable evidence” that a constant armed and uniformed police presence in school corridors is as likely to harm vulnerable students, as it is to make them feel safe and secure. With the final result being that students choose not to go to school at all so as to avoid the anxiety and fear the armed and uniformed cops give them.
Police-Free Schools Winnipeg expects that if the January review of the SRO program by the Winnipeg School Division is based on listening to the first hand experiences of teachers, parents and students, the trustees of the largest school division in the city will find better uses for their limited funds than the SRO program.
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