LERB decision gives rare glimpse into how SROs criminalize students

Edmonton Public School Board trustees will be debating a return of the controversial SRO (school resource officer, that is, police in schools) program on April 30th. Members of the public will be able to participate in this debate, too. So what exactly do SROs do?

Research by local activists and academics—and now, a recent Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB) decision—tell us the answer clearly: school resource officers criminalize children. 

The LERB decision from October 23, 2023 concerns one Cst. Janice Martens, an SRO at an Edmonton area high school. Martens mobilized extensive police resources, interrogated a student and threatened that her fingerprints and mugshot would be taken, but ultimately failed to convict a teen of criminal harassment over alleged Instagram bullying. 

The LERB is a quasi-judicial government body that hears appeals on police officer complaint decisions. The parents of the teen were appealing a decision by Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee, who had dismissed their complaints over the unprofessional conduct of Cst. Martens and an allegation from the parents that Martens fabricated information in her report on the incident. 

While we don’t know what school Martens was an SRO at in 2020, this principal’s message at Louis St. Laurent confirmed that Martens was the SRO there in 2017. Louis St. Laurent is a combination junior and senior high school in the Edmonton Catholic school system with students aged 12-18.  

In order to determine who was behind the Instagram account doing the cyberbullying Cst. Martens served Facebook and Shaw with production orders. After those investigative steps were taken Martens interrogated the teen at the police station with their parents. 

After the interrogation the teen was charged with criminal harassment, which for an adult could mean up to a ten year prison sentence. The parents of the teen alleged that Cst. Martens’ was unprofessional during the interrogation and Cst. Martens charged their teen daughter without sufficient evidence and disregarded other evidence. Those complaints were thrown out by Chief McFee. 

The charge against the teen was ultimately withdrawn and did not proceed to trial. 

“In this case the principal was OK with her undertaking a criminal investigation. I know of cases where students are interrogated by police sometimes without informing the parents first,” said Alexandre Da Costa, an associate professor in education at the University of Alberta.

“There is no universal, one-size-fits-all approach on how to deal with bullying. But I don’t think police are the best way to deal with youth going through this,” said Da Costa. 

“I would have loved to have seen a team of educators, therapists, and counsellors get involved. Police can’t just arrest every kid for every case of cyberbullying.”

Da Costa and Bashir Mohamed sifted through ten years of SRO data in 2022 and published the Edmonton SRO project. They found that between 2011-2021 that SROS issued 2,068 criminal charges to students. 

They also found that 679 students were expelled with SRO involvement, 5,228 students were suspended with SRO involvement and that 20,963 students were labeled as “offenders.” 

“There is this call for evidence-based policy from everyone but I don’t think there’s a single school board or police service that’s collected the data necessary to say whether these programs are effective in reaching the goals they claim to have about crime prevention,” said Da Costa. 

The ostensible goal of the SRO program, before it was suspended, was to “identify the suspect(s) and seek appropriate consequences through the judiciary system.” No mention of diversion but instead the programs primary goal is judicial punishment, of starting students on the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Const.  Patrick Hannas, left, and Const. Lael Sauter, right, are pictured in the 2010-2011 St. Joseph High School yearbook. Both are featured in our feature report on SROs from 2020 headlined: 'A holding place for bad cops?' Police brutality, misconduct and school resource officers

Da Costa and Mohamed also investigated the use of “bait phones” as a tool to criminalize students. The bait phone program was created in 2012 by an SRO because he was having difficulty investigating a specific student.

“The goal really is surveillance and to enforce the law. How do you mentor students and have them trust you when the police are there to surveil and discipline and potentially arrest students,” said Da Costa.  

Edmonton Public School Board chair Julie Kusiek was unequivocal in her opposition to the SRO program when campaigning to be a trustee in 2021. 

“I do not support reinstating the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. I do not support having uniformed police in Edmonton Public Schools as part of the regular school day,” Kusiek wrote in 2021. 

The April 30 meeting to debate the motion on whether to bring back SROs will be open to the public, though those who would like to speak must register by noon on Monday, April 29, by calling 780-429-8443.

The meeting will be held in the McCauley Chambers, 2nd floor, at the Centre for Education at One Kingsway, next to the Victoria High School at 9:30 am on April 30. 

Those who cannot attend the public meeting may also contact their trustee directly; the EPSB maintains a site online where you can find your trustee and their contact information.

Const. Hannas is pictured in the 2009-2010 Holy Trinity High School yearbook.