Parents raise concerns about impact of SRO’s potential return to Edmonton public schools

The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) will debate whether or not to welcome back armed and uniformed police officers into their schools on April 30. In the meantime, parents and other advocates are sounding the alarm about the potential impacts on racialized and vulnerable students if cops return to Edmonton public schools. 

EPSB conducted a study of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program and later held extensive consultations with students, parents and educators about school safety. A similar study using the same researchers for the Edmonton Catholic School District was criticized for minimizing the negative experiences that Black and Indigenous youth had with SROs

Yet even the EPSB’s own flawed study found that 18 per cent of Indigenous students and 11 per cent of Black students reported negative interactions with SROs. 

Bryce Ward, a Cree Métis parent of an EPSB high school student, opposes cops’ return to schools. “Indigenous students are bullied by the cops, straight up. Anything they do, they’re watched. They go outside to play football they’re being watched,” said Ward. 

“It interferes with what they’re there for, to learn and to have fun. It’s hard to do that when there’s a cop over your shoulder thinking that you’re the next gangster. 

“I’m going to let my kid know that they might be coming back. It’s just something they need to be aware of, being Indigenous, you’re put in a negative spotlight. There could be times where you’re being questioned, and just let him know that I trust him.

Ward added that he intends on attending the upcoming EPSB meeting to express his opposition to cops in schools.

Glynnis Lieb, a parent of multiple Black, equity-seeking EPSB students and the executive director of the Fyrefly Institute of Sexual and Gender Diversity at the U of A is concerned. Some of that concern is rooted in upcoming anti-trans youth laws and regulations that have been announced by Premier Danielle Smith

“The youth we work with feel so conspicuous already. If they have to worry about police in schools on top of everything else, it’s not good. Especially if they’re being harassed. Someone says something transphobic and they get sanctioned, because people see the response and react to that,” said Lieb.

“In an atmosphere that’s fueling transphobia and you’re putting police officers in a situation where tensions are heightened against trans youth. This is a circumstance where our youth are already in the crosshairs and we know that police are weaponized against marginalized groups all the time.”

Lieb is personally grateful that her kids haven’t had to interact with SROs in their schools since the program was shelved in 2020. Her children have been identified as “dysregulated” and “out of control” a common occurrence for Black male students. Lieb recalls an incident where her children were suspended for using the N-word affectionately between themselves. Two white students who were also using the word, however, weren’t suspended.

When Lieb’s children ignored the suspension and returned to class, the principal initiated a lockdown, using the announce system to urge teachers to lock their classroom doors, and called 9-1-1.

“All they had done was show up to school. If there was an SRO, do you know how many times my boys would have been in handcuffs already?” Lieb said.

“We won’t put money into extra educational assistants or social workers in schools but we will pay for cops. The easiest thing for a principal to do is involve the SRO and make it a law enforcement issue. That shouldn’t be the go-to.”

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

Poet and writer Ahmed “Knowmadic” Ali is the parent of two EPSB students who works in equity, diversion and inclusion programs in schools.. Ali experienced racist policing in school first hand as a high-school student. He said he’s alarmed by the EPSB study results that show so many negative interactions between Black youth and SROs. 

“I don’t think it would continue if it was any other type of organization that wasn’t cops. If it was an arts program where 10 per cent of Black students reported negative interactions, it would be reworked, reconsidered,” said Ali, adding that he’s not opposed to SROs writ large, but believes they shouldn’t be in uniforms or armed 

“They should be building relationships and not criminals.” 

Ali ran against former trustee Cheryl Johner for the EPSB trustee spot in north Edmonton in 2017 and lost. Johner later resigned after remarks referencing violent refugee students in schools. Her racist comments and resignation ultimately led to the SRO program’s suspension.. 

Harnoor Singh is an organizer with Alberta Workers Association for Research and Education (AWARE), a group that has been working with several families whose children are being denied access to an education due to their and their parents’ immigration status.

Denying these students an education is a human rights violation, but even if their issues getting access to an education are resolved, Singh still has worries, particularly if there are uniformed cops in schools. 

“Undocumented students may feel increased anxiety due to the presence of law enforcement leading to decreased attendance and participation in school activities,” said Singh. 

“Parents might feel scared to pick children up from school to avoid any contact with police. This can contribute to a hostile or unwelcoming school environment for undocumented students, negatively impacting their overall well-being and academic success. We don’t know if police will work with schools or immigration authorities to target these students and deport them. This will be a fear of the families.”

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

“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 whether to bring back SROs will be open to the public, though those who would like to speak can only do so in person and must register by noon on 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 a.m. on April 30. 

Those who cannot attend the public meeting may also contact their trustee directly. The EPSB maintains a webpage where you can find your trustee and their contact information. Public Interest Alberta has set up an email tool where parents, students and voters can easily email all trustees about this issue.