The politics of the SRO program, and why it had to end

Schools have become a key battleground for the police in Waterloo Region, and the politics that extend past the classroom are harmful for students

The decision to shutter the School Resource Officer (SRO) program that operated at the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) requires our full attention. On the surface, it seems to be a win following last year’s KW Solidarity March for Black Lives and its calls to action, which specifically demanded the program be dismantled and replaced.

The SRO Review Committee that convened in response to pressure from the community to review the program presented seven recommendations to WRDSB trustees on June 22:

  1. That the WRDSB issues a public apology acknowledging the harms of the program to Black, Indigenous, and Racialized (BIR) students
  2. That the WRDSB agrees to end the SRO Program effective immediately.
  3. That the WRDSB develops a clear procedure limiting the role of police in schools, other than incident response. Community partners with the capacity to deliver presentations and support services currently being provided by police officers should be identified, vetted, and promoted throughout the system.
  4. That the WRDSB reviews the local School-Police Protocol through an equity, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive lens.
  5. That the WRDSB explores restorative justice strategies and practices when addressing student discipline issues.
  6. That the WRDSB write a letter to the Region of Waterloo, requesting that the funds previously used to deliver the SRO Program within the WRDSB be reallocated to community-based services for youth.
  7. That the Board of Trustees dissolves the Ad Hoc School Resource Officer Review Committee.

After deliberation over two meetings, the WRDSB trustees voted 8-2 in favour of removing the SRO program. Though thousands marched through the streets ostensibly in support of this goal in 2020, I find myself wondering whether people in Waterloo Region realize why the program needed to be replaced. The ardent support for the program suggests there is little understanding of how deeply problematic and harmful the program is, and how the work to support BIR students is far from over.

Formal partnerships between police departments and school boards proliferated through the 90s. Neoliberal policies and cuts to education and social services laid the groundwork for the SRO program, which aligned with the trend of cities and towns all across Ontario adopting community policing initiatives. Security and surveillance further deepened in schools across North America through post-9/11, impacting decisions about how SROs were trained to operate in schools.

At the Toronto District School Board, officers were deployed to schools in 2008; in Waterloo Region, the SRO program (which began with six officers assigned to work within the school district) was introduced in 1990-91 — almost two decades earlier. In all that time, there had never been a review conducted of the program. No concerns about how this would negatively impact BIR students. Trustee Jayne Herring opined that it could be simply because the program was implemented by a mostly white population. But that doesn’t tell the whole story; or rather, it paints a picture of benign ignorance or innocence that should be challenged. 

Students 4 Inclusive Schools (S4IS), a campaign led by Black and racialized students from the WRDSB last year, shared how the SRO program impacted them. Their experiences were consistent with decades worth of research that reveal how SRO programs erode trust between youth and authority figures, leading to reduced opportunities for educational success, and how police in schools negatively impact on BIR students.

“As a Black girl going through the WRDSB from kindergarten to grade twelve, I was often disheartened. I struggled for many years with anxiety around school and depression. It started young, almost always being the only Black kid in the classroom and having no black teachers, being made fun of for the fact that I’d bring Caribbean lunches to school, having someone use the N word towards me resulting in the loss of a friendship, all before the end of school. When I’d wear my natural hair they made fun of its texture, when I spoke up they would call me sensitive. High school was no different, in fact it hurt more because by then I had expected people to have learnt. I still had yet to have a Black or even POC teacher. I faced discrimination in the classroom, on the playing field and at lunch. I got called “social justice warrior” and “angry Black girl” when I used my voice. I got told that wearing a headscarf was not allowed cause it was considered a “hat”. I got told by a non-Black teacher that she “would be saying the N word in a book because it is significant to the book”, I got told to build a bridge and get over slavery by a teammate. The saddest part is, no matter how many times I brought this to administration, nothing was done. No punishments, no educating, nothing. In fact they often made me out to be vengeful. In my weakest moments, when I expressed a wish to not be alive, I was sat down with administration and a school resource officer, a man suited up with a gun and a bullet proof vest. Even after that traumatizing experience, nothing was done for my mental health or the events that brought me to that place. I believe that WRDSB needs to make big changes to end anti-Black racism within the system, starting with an apology for the past and recognizing where they have gone wrong, removing school resource officers which patronize our Black and non-white students,as well as adjusting their course of action towards race-based encounters. As a girl who has graduated and moved on to university, despite people doubting I could get there along the way, I still remember and see how the WRDSB has and continues to neglect the needs of Black students.”

Graduate from Huron Heights, 2019

The review committee looked at both provincial reports and local data, including the experiences shared through the S4IS campaign, to show that systemic racism is, as they wrote, a “core, agreed upon, feature of policing…so why would the harms of systemic racism stop at the doors of school buildings when a School Resource Officer enters?” 

One of the criticisms of the SRO review was that the committee did not speak to enough students (or as student trustee Tristan John-Jandles said of the voices that were considered: “is it the right student voice?”). 

As trustee Karen Meissner pointed out at the meeting, “There is a moral obligation to ensure this process offers our students dignity, care, safety, and respect. The review committee felt that it was unethical to require our Black, Indigenous, and racialized students to undergo an extended consultation process, which required them to relive their trauma and prove the validity of their fear when so much compelling data is already available.”

The decision to pull the SRO program is not, as some have argued, short-changing students; all the evidence points to how this is a positive step towards educational empowerment and safer learning environments. We can look at the outcomes following the cancellation of the SRO program in the Toronto District School Board as a road-map for the future. After the program ended, the number of suspensions and expulsions in the following school year dropped by 24 per cent and 53 per cent, respectively. 

So, why are detractors of the decision to dismantle the program so upset? I think back to Oct. 19 last year, when the motion to review the SRO program was first tabled at a WRDSB meeting. Trustees Kathi Smith and Mike Ramsay repeatedly alleged they were being threatened by Black Lives Matter activists to vote in favour of the motion. When asked to elaborate on who they were referring to, they could not provide any details. 

The board of trustees later offered a public apology for allowing Smith’s and Ramsay’s unfounded slander and bullying against Black activists to go on for as long as it did. After the vote to cancel the SRO program went through, Ramsay, an ex-police officer with the WRPS, took to social media to once again blame the nebulous Black Lives Matter movement.

I am not sure whether Ramsay understands that Black Lives Matter is not a single entity, but rather a decentralized, transnational movement that is, as Angela Davis said during her lecture at the University of Guelph in 2019, full of engaged young leaders. Also, I am curious to know what tragedies move Ramsay. Last year three WRPS officers chose to aggressively arrest a 15-year-old Black boy in Kitchener last year for perceived misconduct, irrevocably altering the course of his life. Why doesn’t Ramsay think this tragedy is worth discussing?

We know that police officers unfairly scrutinize and harshly punish Black youth. As outlined in Robin Maynard’s book, Policing Black Lives, BIR youth disproportionately face suspensions and expulsions, and their harsh treatment has its roots in white supremacy. Just like the boy who was violently arrested last year, Black children are routinely seen as physically stronger, older, and more dangerous than other children.

Allegations that depict Black activism as threatening and aggressive are connected to how the police criminalize Black communities. These youth who challenge the status quo are depicted as violent in order to discount their activism and fabricate the innocence and necessity of the police. 

We must think more deeply and carefully about what we mean by ‘justice’ and what kind of world we aim to co-create. We are now living in a moment in which large numbers of people in our region are suddenly paying attention to systemic racism, but it has been our Black and Indigenous youth who have been saying this all along. The removal of the SRO program is a demonstration of listening to the Black and racialized youth who spoke out through Students 4 Inclusive Schools. The choices that the WRDSB makes to enact these recommendations and honour the SRO review committee’s decision ‘to do no harm’ will prove whether they have been heard. 

“It doesn’t matter if my children attended school and had a positive experience with an SRO or had no experience with an SRO, or if I have a family member or close friend who is with the police or if I worked with an SRO when I was in the schools. None of that matters if there are students who are feeling harmed.”

Carol Millar, WRDSB Trustee

We also need to listen to the Indigenous youth at Land Back Camp who are fighting for their futures. When BIR youth tell us, emphatically, that police in schools harm them, yet are challenged at every turn, how does this impact on their mental health? The 2016 WRDSB Strategic Plan states an aim for their students to “pursue individual learning pathways that reflect their interests, develop skills for the future and inspire global citizenship.” It can be reasonably argued that the student activism that called for the end of the SRO program met and exceeded this aim. 

The cancellation of the SRO program is the embodiment of what these students advocated for: learning environments that honour their innate brilliance and provide the opportunity to actualize their visions of themselves. Here is the lesson for the rest of us; it shouldn’t have taken George Floyd’s murder, 20,000 people marching through downtown Kitchener, students sharing their trauma, and a civil rights uprising for us to offer them justice. So, let us celebrate these youth exceeding the expectations set out for them; let us mark this decision as a blueprint for what every student in Waterloo Region deserves: police-free schools. 


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