EPSB votes to review SRO program but not suspend it. Trustee Cheryl Johner makes racist remarks about refugee students

The Edmonton Public School Board voted to thoroughly review and research the school resource officer (SRO) program, but in a tie vote it did not suspend the program while the review is underway. 

The motions were brought forward by school board trustee Bridget Stirling and debated over the course of a marathon eight hour meeting that saw more than 20 members of the public speak, the vast majority in favour of abolishing or suspending the program.

The vote on the matter of suspension for the program was evenly split with Trustees Michael Janz, Bridget Stirling, Nathan Ip and Shelagh Dunn voting to suspend while Trustees Trish Estabrooks, Cheryl Johner, Sherry Adams and Michelle Draper voted against. Trustee Ken Gibson did not attend the meeting. The tie meant the motion was defeated. 

Trustee Cheryl Johner (left), board chair Trish Estabrooks (right)

The SRO program, which brings armed police into schools as full-time members of school staff, has been in place since 1979 but has never had a review. Reporting on what is actually being done by officers in schools is also very limited. The school board covers half the salary of SROs, an expense which adds up to over a million dollars a year for the 17 SROs that work in 21 EPSB schools. 

The motion to review the program with an outside academic researcher passed unanimously.  The Toronto District School Board took a similar approach, reviewing their SRO program before eventually abolishing it in 2017. There will be a vote on whether to continue with the SRO program once the review is completed and submitted to the board. The time-frame for this review is not set in stone but will likely take several months. 

During the public hearing portion of the meeting an allegation of two separate cops continuing to be SROs after the infamous “sweatbox” police brutality incident was brought up. Despite this and numerous other stories of students made to feel unsafe by SROs as well as existing literature that shows that a percentage of minority students feel unsafe or targeted by SROs, was not enough to persuade a majority of the school board to suspend the program while the review was underway. 

This is in stark contrast to the Hamilton, Ontario school board removing their police school liaison program a day prior.

The swing vote on the matter of suspension was board chair Trish Estabrooks. She called it a hard decision. “Even if there is just one student with a proven incident of harm with police in our schools, yes we have evidence of harm in other jurisdictions but we don’t have evidence, I believe, here in Edmonton public schools,” said Estabrooks. She also said that suspending the program would leave a lot of people in the lurch. 

Trustee Shelagh Dunn went the other way, saying that the lack of information “was enough of a reason to pause the program while we gather the information.”

In the final round of debate on the matter of suspension, some noteworthy remarks were made by Trustee Cheryl Johner in support of SROs

“My mind goes to the number of refugee students that come into our district that are from war torn countries. That have never known school before arriving here, all they have known is violence. When those students, sometimes, enter our schools they can be violent there as well. And I feel that the safety of students is critically important. That other students feel safe as they go to their own schools,” said Johner. She went on to say that SROs act as a deterrent to this violence from refugee students and that suspending the program would not be evidence based. 

There was an immediate reaction to these racist remarks online by multiple people. Bashir Mohamed said, “she [Cheryl Johner] needs to resign. There is no other option here. Her comments are racist and unacceptable. Her resigning is the bare minimum and I am expecting her colleagues to demand the same.”

NDP MLA Thomas Dang said, “The comments made by Trustee Cheryl Johner are openly racist, deeply offensive, and unbefitting of any person, let alone an elected official...I am a child of refugee parents, I went to school in her ward. I cannot describe the pain her words cause. Despicable.”

 These comments by Johner characterizing refugee students as violent are demonstrably racist, and given her position of power over these students, Johner should resign immediately.