SRO program review finds diverse students feel intimidated by police

‘We don’t need police in schools to tell children that police are OK. Police should just be OK, and they shouldn’t have to convince people of that’

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More than half of Calgary students across four diverse demographic groups hold negative perceptions of police — including fear, mistrust and injustice — according to a review of the school resource officer program.

As part of a commitment to anti-racism and equity, the Calgary Police Service is evaluating the program, and measuring students’ lived experiences with police and the officers rotating through 400 schools across the city.

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But advocates for Calgary’s Black and Indigenous communities argue police shouldn’t even be in schools, and only create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for racialized students.

Calgary police Supt. Asif Rashid, who oversees the Strategic Partnership Division handling the review, admitted there is much work to do to improve the decades-old SRO program, from cultural sensitivity training to placing more officers in schools on a more consistent basis.

“We know there’s a lot of consternation from racialized and marginalized communities who were having disproportionately poorer outcomes in terms of their interactions with police,” Rashid said.

“Our social economic and political climate has changed, we are the third most diverse city in Canada, and with recent trends, we see upwards of 500,000 new Canadians entering Canada every year, so the timing is right to undertake this wholesome evaluation of the SRO program.”

Rashid said that in non-adversarial environments, such as schools, police “can build positive relationships with youth, contribute to a cohesive ecosystem of care and enhance resiliency,” so that at-risk youth are less susceptible to crime and victimization.

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‘It sends the wrong message’

But Adora Nwofor, president of Black Lives Matter YYC, argues police don’t belong in schools.

“We don’t need police in schools to tell children that police are OK. Police should just be OK, and they shouldn’t have to convince people of that,” she said.

In her role, Nwofor says she regularly speaks with youth facing racism and discrimination in the school environment, feeling intimidated and still hearing racial slurs.

“They are overpoliced, constantly being watched and followed,” Nwofor said.

“And when other kids are creating problems, like saying the N-word to them, when that Black child or racialized child stands up for themselves, they end up being punished.”

Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for the Reconciliation Action Group and advocate for the local Indigenous community, agrees that police should not be in schools.

“It sends the wrong message. It says police are watching you, and teachers and principals and support staff can use police as a threat,” she said.

“As Indigenous people, we’ve always been criminalized and institutionalized, with police being the mechanism of control, and that feeling still exists for many students.”

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Michelle Robinson
Michelle Robinson was photographed in Calgary on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Robinson says her own children have had negative experiences with police, including being harassed a few years ago while walking home in their community and being asked for ID for no reason.

“My daughter was only 15 at the time, she didn’t even have an ID yet. There was no reason for police to be stopping these kids.”

Diverse students had more negative perception of police: report

Both Nwofor and Robinson said they were not surprised that the SRO review showed a majority of diverse students had negative perceptions of police, arguing the system is not doing enough to make them feel safe.

As part of the SRO review’s research over the past two years, students in junior high and high school — representing up to 23 ethnocultural communities — were engaged in classroom discussions, smaller focus groups and online surveys about their experiences with police.

Participants were divided into five groups: Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, students with disabilities and an “overall” category encompassing other racialized students, including Asian or South Asian.

After students were asked a variety of questions about their feelings or memorable interactions with police, more than half indicated “negative sentiments,” choosing key words such as “racism, profiling, targeting, bias, discrimination and intimidating” to describe their experiences.

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According to the data, perceptions of police among students in the “overall” category were a balance of negative and positive sentiments, at 40 and 41 per cent, respectively, as well as 17 per cent showing mixed sentiment.

But almost half of Black student sentiments were negative, 63 per cent of Indigenous student sentiments were negative, half of the LGBTQ+ student sentiments were negative and more than half of the participants who self-identified as someone with a disability were also negative.

As a result, the report concluded that across the four diverse demographic groups, participants reported more than 50 per cent of negative sentiments.

File photo of an empty classroom
Students were asked a variety of questions about their feelings or memorable interactions with police. The report concluded that across the four diverse demographic groups, participants reported more than 50 per cent of negative sentiments. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Students were also asked: “When you think of a police officer, what is the first word that comes to mind?” The responses included a variety of key words, some positive, but mostly negative from diverse students, including racism, profiling, targeting, fear, bias, discrimination and intimidating.

The report also listed sample responses:

A Black Grade 12 student described police as “brutal and discriminative. Police are people who brutally deal with people, more so Blacks without evidence. They discriminate us because of colour.”

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Another Grade 12 Black student who also identified as LGBTQ+ described them as “arrogant, too much pride, they don’t listen, they judge unequally; there is no attention to detail.”

Review recommends more SROs

The results of the student engagement were discussed with a variety of stakeholders — including police, educators and representatives of racialized and diverse communities — to develop an action plan that will “reimagine and transform police presence in schools.”

Among the review’s 47 recommendations are to hire more student resource officers to have a more consistent presence in junior high and high schools, something students also suggested in their surveys.

Rashid said the existing SRO program supports 38 officers rotating through 400 schools, saying that works out to about one officer assigned to rotate through four to five high schools, and one officer assigned to about 10 to 12 junior high schools.

The SRO program will request more funding in future budgets, but Rashid admits police are facing myriad other challenges, such as gun violence, that will compete for limited funding.

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Efforts have already begun to increase cultural sensitivity training among officers in schools, now a requirement of all SROs, Rashid said.

“We have a great opportunity around cultural competency training, anti-racism training for officers, and that’s fully underway,” he said.

And with more officers embedded in schools, Rashid said they’ll be better equipped to prevent conflict, to understand the culture of a school, and help at-risk students connect with other resources in the community.

Asif Rashid
FILE PHOTO: District Four Inspector Asif Rashid is pictured in an alleyway along 19th Ave. SE near the Forest Lawn Victory Outreach Foundation location. Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Brendan Miller/Postmedia

Advocates suggest more diverse educators, not SROs

But advocates argue teachers and support staff can also perform those roles, adding that cultural sensitivity training is archaic, and perpetuates the idea that racialized students are “other” and need special treatment.

“Schools are there to develop people to become their best selves,” Nwofor said.

“That looks like Black boys and girls who are diagnosed with ADHD, for instance, getting the supports they need and deserve, instead of being vilified or criminalized, or being told they’re different and getting something extra.”

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But Rashid said having police officers in schools means exactly that, more resources and more supports for students to help guide them toward success.

Rashid added several high schools are at risk of a variety of crimes —  from cyberbullying, sextortion, human trafficking, gang activity and drug use — that SROs can help prevent.

“Not having SROs in schools, that is just a missed opportunity. They are an important resource.”

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Halima Mohamud, a social worker who works with youth at the Somali-Canadian Society of Calgary, agrees that diverse students need more supports in schools.

The best way for them to get that is from diverse educators, she said.

“Personally, I don’t think the issue is not having enough resource officers or having more competency training. Having more officers just creates a more hostile environment.

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“There needs to be more diverse educators, from all different cultural backgrounds; students have to see themselves in positions of leadership.”

Nwofor agreed. “We need more Black teachers, more Indigenous teachers, more disabled teachers and more teachers who are queer, who are allowed to say they are queer.

“If students are able to interact with teachers like this, they won’t be seen as so odd, so weird, just because they came to school with rice in their lunch and not a sandwich.”

Adora Nwofor
Adora Nwofor, president of Black Lives Matter YYC, poses for a photo on Thursday, January 25, 2024. Dean Pilling/Postmedia

Other recommendations to be considered as part of the review over the next several months include working more closely with community groups and organizations to source relevant cultural and mental-health training for ongoing development, using the expertise of existing SROs to include scenario-based training related to proactive conflict resolution and relationship building with students, engaging with school boards to see if there is training that could be shared between staff, and SROs to encourage positive relationship building.

Officials with both the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District said they’re fully supportive of the SRO review and look forward to working more closely with police to improve the program.

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