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At least one Winnipeg-area division wants to expand the number of uniformed police officers working in its schools.

There are currently 18 members of the Winnipeg Police Service part of the School Resource Officer program, a countrywide community policing initiative that was first introduced to Winnipeg in 2002.

Its intent, according to Public Safety Canada, is to provide law enforcement officer support to school communities "with a focus on prevention and early intervention activities." The Winnipeg program is funded by the province, police force and school boards.

School Resource Officers

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Winnipeg School Division: 9

Seven Oaks School Division: 3

St. James Assiniboia School Division: 2

Pembina Trails School Division: 2

Louis Riel School Division: 1

River East Transcona School Division: 1

— Winnipeg Police Service

"Our school resource officer has been a positive presence at six of our schools for the 2019–20 school year," said Amanda Gaudes, a spokeswoman for River-East Transcona School Division, in a statement to the Free Press.

"He visits the schools on a rotating schedule, serving as a role model for students, and provides education and resources regarding the law, digital citizenship, anti-bullying initiatives, and good choices."

During the first year of the program at the east Winnipeg division, its single officer has split his time between Transcona Collegiate, John W. Gunn Middle School, Bernie Wolfe School, Radisson School, Westview School and Joseph Teres School.

So far, Gaudes said the division has heard positive feedback from students, staff and parents.

Scot Halley, a superintendent with the Winnipeg Police Service who oversees the SRO program, said the division has requested up to five more officers — but limited resources in the force mean it can only increase the city-wide roster to 19. (Gaudes said the division couldn’t comment on its exact request since the 2020-21 school budget process is underway.)

Both Halley and Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas), the city’s liaison for school boards, confirmed the division will gain an additional SRO next year.

Halley said that although the force feels it would be "very beneficial" to further expand the program, it needs to examine its resources first.

"It allows us to interact at a young age with our young people and to start building those relationships and gaining trust," he said. "That’s really the goal of the entire program — it’s to let kids know who police officers are and what we do and how we serve and how we take care of people."

Past studies of the program operating at the Winnipeg School Division and Pembina Trails School Division have concluded students feel safer with SROs around and there are fewer bullying incidents and reports of graffiti on school property.

Not all community members would agree the way the program’s set up is beneficial for all students.

"Any act of police intervention, especially around children and citizens of colour, I don’t think it’s an accident. It’s another way to police and surveil Indigneous, black and vulnerable minorities," said Alexa Potashnik of Black Space Winnipeg.

Potashnik noted white students have a very different experience with police than students who identify as visible minorities, who might have firsthand, negative experiences with authorities.

Historic, systemic violence against people of colour amplifies matters, she said, adding today marks one year since Winnipeg police shot and killed Machuar Madut, a 43-year-old newcomer from South Sudan who had mental health challenges.

In November 2017, the Toronto District School Board voted to end its controversial SRO program after a review of the program found it criminalized predominantly racialized and undocumented students. The program’s end was celebrated by black activists who had long raised concerns about policing of their children in schools.

Halley said it would be "devastating" if a movement to end SROs like the one in Toronto happened in Winnipeg.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg who has researched such programs and their effects on populations across the country, questioned why Winnipeg is expanding its program while SROs are being shut down elsewhere.

Dobchuk-Land said mistrust is rooted in police being unable to provide security to the most vulnerable citizens in the first place. As well, she said a trusting relationship between a single officer and children doesn’t translate into good relationships with other officers.

"The issue is not just about whether we keep SROs or not keep SROs," said Jennifer Chen, a Winnipeg School Division trustee. For Chen, it’s a question of whether police are provided with sufficient cultural training in order to build trust with students from all ethnocultural communities.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
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.

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