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.
It came on the heels of a six-week review that involved consultation with more than 15,000 students, said Phillip Morgan, an organizer with Education Not Incarceration community group.
"If we believe that schools are places where people are supposed to feel safe, and where they should access education without any sort of barriers, then it doesn't really make sense for us to have police in schools. When we know that there are people in our communities who have very different experiences of police, who don't feel safe around them, who have been harassed by police, profiled by police," Morgan said in an interview Thursday.
"Those histories don’t stop at the threshold of the school entrance, those things are brought into the school. So if we want students to be able to focus and study and have a barrier-free experience, we can't have police in schools."
Another major Ontario city division followed suit in June 2020, when pressure from community members led the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to scrap its police liaison program.
A campaign led by the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN) is currently calling to extend the example struck by Toronto and Hamilton to school boards across Ontario.
Also in June, the Edmonton Public School Board voted to conduct its first independent study of the onsite police program (in effect since 1979) but stopped short of pulling officers out during the review.
Dozens of members of the public registered to speak to trustees, with many criticizing the board’s reluctance to act, citing the schools-to-prison pipeline and numerous studies depicting the impact of police officers on racialized students as impetus for change.
Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-director of LAEN, threw support behind the Alberta organizers and demanded both a suspension and an end to the program.
Jimenez told the Edmonton board that, in the year since the removal of Toronto’s police-in-school program, suspensions had dropped 24 per cent and expulsions fell 53 per cent (in comparison to the 2016-17 school year), with more emphasis placed on communication with parents, social workers and guidance workers.
"Having healthy, equitable, police-free schools is a public health issue, and is a labour issue," Jimenez said during the June 30 meeting. "Not only are police-free schools fiscally responsible and a professional obligation, but it moves beyond that because it indeed is a legal obligation, it is a human right, and the continuation of police in schools is gross negligence and an ongoing human rights violation on the part of your school board."
Earlier this month, trustees conceded and announced the program would be shelved during the review in favour of a "Youth Enhanced Deployment" model, which will have officers continue to work with youth without being stationed in schools.
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, a petition from parents, educators and community members demanding the immediate end of the school liaison officer program and reinvestment of resources into community-led school programs reached nearly 3,000 signatures as of Thursday, and has garnered support from advocacy groups.
While movements across the country work to diminish the presence of police in school hallways, Winnipeg’s schools are expanding police presence, adding a new officer to the River East Transcona School Division this year.
"We’re alarmed that while countless other cities are defunding and reconceiving and dismantling these programs, Winnipeg is only expanding them. We think that that is a regressive and dangerous commitment to prioritizing police reach into marginalized communities over health and equity," said Cam Scott, an organizer with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.