As COVID-19 forces schools to make tough decisions, the Winnipeg School Division will be reviewing it’s school resource officer program to see if that money could be better spent elsewhere.
The WSD board of trustees voted to refer the SRO program to the finance committee for discussion. The motion was passed on Oct. 5, and the finance committee will review the matter for the division’s 2021 budget.
The issue was raised by a group of teachers, parents and former students calling themselves Police Free Schools Winnipeg. The group claims that school resource officers, who are sworn Winnipeg Police Service members, do more harm than good for marginalized communities.
Cam Scott, an organizer with Police Free Schools Winnipeg, said while SROs are not there to police students officially, there are many stories of officers overstepping their bounds.
"We’re concerned about the negative impacts of a police presence, on student involvement and attendance," Scott said. "According to some teachers and officials, SROs aren’t there to police students … And yet, when someone starts talking about getting rid of them, those same people will say, in the same breath, SROs need to be there for safety. We’re really concerned about that contradiction."
Scott said members of his advocacy group have experienced prejudice from SROs. He added that there are many stories of SROs overstepping their boundaries, where they would interrogate students, push for a student’s detention or expulsion and otherwise directly impact a student’s academic life.
There’s also the issue of institutional racism in the justice system. Many students in the WSD come from marginalized communities, where kids might be suffering from trauma and prejudice related to law enforcement. According to Scott, those students now have to come to school and face an armed, uniformed officer in a place of learning.
And then there’s the budget. Due to COVID-19, school funds are being hammered across the province, with the WSD having to let go many educational assistance and make cuts wherever they can.
Jennifer Chen, WSD board trustee for Ward 6, put forward the motion to examine the SRO budget. She said the division needs to take a critical look at its finances, and maybe put some of that money towards actually helping schools.
"We may face some financial challenges in (the) coming years. (The WSD Board) has to make some difficult choices. As a result, our schools have fewer staff," Chen said. "Budgets are all about priorities. We need to reevaluate our spending priorities, to improve educational outcomes. Our focus should be on that, providing more resources for teachers, to fix old buildings, get schools ready for ongoing results of the pandemic. It is time for the school board to look at alternatives to the SRO program."
According to Chen, the SRO program cost the division around $470,000 in 2018/19.
The finance committee will review the motion, presenting whatever changes they come up with at the next budget, in 2021.
Scott said that money could be spent elsewhere, on resources and services for teachers and students.
"That money pays for around nine SROs at the schools. That could pay for breakfast programs for all kindergarten students in the division. It could provide money for lunch programs," Scott said. "Even for little things like this, I encourage everyone to use their imagination, to see where that money can be better spent. There’s so much stress put on teachers … We feel the police presence doesn’t justify the cost. That could go towards so many other things."
For more information, or to view the meeting minutes, visit winnipegsdca.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingTypeList.aspx
The Metro community journalist
Justin Luschinski is the community journalist for The Metro. Email him at email@example.com