Some school staff say having uniformed police officers stationed in Winnipeg schools deters racialized students from attending class. Others report being disturbed by what they call victim-blaming presentations on sexting and gang involvement. In one specific critique, a teacher reported witnessing a student in crisis be unnecessarily "physically accosted and put in handcuffs."
Under the Police-Free Schools Winnipeg banner, more than a dozen school staff, parents and community members are calling on schools to revisit their relationships with police.
The campaign is the latest in Canada to question the police presence in public schools; in recent months, critics in Hamilton, Vancouver and Edmonton have mobilized against such programs.
“We see the school resource officer program as an example of police overreach and a tool by which to, I think, further infiltrate and profile overpoliced communities.” — Cam Scott, organizer with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg
"We see the school resource officer program as an example of police overreach and a tool by which to, I think, further infiltrate and profile overpoliced communities," said Cam Scott, an organizer with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg.
A countrywide policing initiative, the program was introduced to Winnipeg in 2002.
It has since grown to include 19 police officers who work in six city divisions: nine in Winnipeg 1; three in Seven Oaks; two in St. James Assiniboia; two in Pembina Trails; two in River East Transcona and one in Louis Riel.
Police in school programs become Canadian issueClick to Expand
Posted: 6:48 PM Sep. 17, 2020
The movement to remove police from schools has reached Winnipeg after sweeping across the nation in recent years, beginning with a historic decision by Canada’s largest school division.
In November 2017, after nearly a decade of action from students, parents and community members, the Toronto District School Board voted to axe its decade-old, onsite police program.
The officers typically visit various elementary, middle and high schools. They are equipped with the same uniforms and weapons as on-call officers with the Winnipeg Police Service.
The program is funded by the provincial government, school divisions and the police service. Last year, it cost $2.4 million.
According to Winnipeg police codes obtained by the Free Press, the officers' duties include giving presentations on everything from bullying to drugs, student and parent consultations, truancy check-ins, restorative justice work and "participation in a threat assessment."
Local police and community supporters have long touted the program as one that aims to build trust and understanding between marginalized students, parents and police.
Two teachers, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, argue it does the opposite. They say it contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon in which Black, Indigenous and students of colour are disproportionately penalized at school and leads to more encounters with police in the community.
Both said the program serves as a public relations branch of the police service.
One teacher said his views have largely been shaped by an incident he witnessed in which an officer used force and handcuffs to deal with a student in a crisis situation. He said the officer got involved after the situation had de-escalated.
"It not only does harm to students who are Black, Indigenous and students of colour — like is often talked about, for good reason, but it also kind of creates these really difficult-to-shake labels amongst students who have had experiences with police," he said.
“It not only does harm to students who are Black, Indigenous and students of colour ‐ like is often talked about, for good reason, but it also kind of creates these really difficult-to-shake labels amongst students who have had experiences with police.” — Anonymous Winnipeg teacher
Another teacher said his conversations with teachers and students of colour about their negative experiences with officers have convinced him police have no place in schools.
He pointed to the Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg demands, which include a call on Manitoba Education to cut ties with police. The petition has garnered more than 115,000 signatures in three months.
"The question shouldn’t be 'Should we have cops'? The question should be what supports are more meaningful and don’t have negative impacts on students," said the second teacher.
While the province, divisions and police service have endorsed the upcoming three-year program agreement, city council is expected to vote on a motion to approve the contract at the end of the month.
Police-Free Schools Winnipeg wants the program put on pause and the money redirected to breakfast programs and guidance counsellors.
Scott said it’s not lost on the organizers that other jurisdictions are reimagining their programs while Winnipeg is expanding its by an additional officer.
In an interview Thursday, Coun. Markus Chambers, who is chairman of the Winnipeg Police Board, said he supports the program's goal of relationship-building. Chambers added he has committed to increasing community outreach, dialogue and consultation about policing in the city.
When asked about the campaign’s concerns, Winnipeg police Insp. Bonnie Emerson told reporters she has only ever heard positive things about the program from schools, community members and reviews.
"The (officers) are involved in this program because they care about the kids and that we are really supportive of this program because we believe in positive outcomes," Emerson said.
A 2014 evaluation of the program in Winnipeg School Division indicated overwhelming support for the program. The survey did not break down respondents’ racial identities.
“The (officers) are involved in this program because they care about the kids and that we are really supportive of this program because we believe in positive outcomes." — Winnipeg police Insp. Bonnie Emerson
Betty Edel, chairwoman of the WSD board, has been a proponent since she got involved in advocating for it in the early 2000s. "Our only relationship in the community with police was coming to arrest one of our family members or friends and that, so we were trying to get away from an ‘us’ and ‘them,’" said Edel, who is Métis.
If the program is not operating as it was intended, Edel said she is open to hearing from community members. Emerson echoed those sentiments.
The first teacher who spoke to the Free Press said teachers are increasingly talking about being actively anti-racist through professional development and the introduction of more diverse texts into classrooms.
"These are all wonderful things and education is absolutely key," he said, "but to actually practise anti-racism, we need to call into question ourselves and the systems we represent."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.