Report echoes calls for removal of police from Winnipeg schools, citing fear and discrimination

Intimidated, scared, paranoid.

Those are some of the words used by more than three dozen students of colour and their parents in a new report describing their experience with officers in North End and downtown Winnipeg schools.

Out Tuesday, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, titled Safer Schools Without Policing Indigenous and Black Lives in Winnipeg, repeats calls for an end to the Winnipeg Police Service school resource officer program.

It includes accounts from 24 students, 13 parents or legal guardians and two informants. They suggest the presence of police in schools causes harm and compounds discrimination students of colour already face from peers and school staff.

“When I see police [in school], it is like a switch that goes off in my head,” reads an account from a Black student.

“I have to act right … my hands have to be out of my pockets, and I have to look like I am not carrying anything on me because there have been cases where people have been misunderstood and gotten shot at.”

LISTEN | CBC interview with Fadi Ennab:

Up To Speed11:20New report details racism felt by students from SRO’s in Winnipeg schools

Guest host Marjorie Dowhos reached Fadi Ennab, the author of a new report entitled “Safer Schools Without Policing Indigenous and Black Lives in Winnipeg” about how School Resource Officers, or SRO’s, compound experiences of harassment felt by racialized students and their families. We also heard comments from Bonnie Emerson, Superintendent of Community Engagement with the Winnipeg Police Service.

Researcher Fadi Ennab, a PhD student in the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education, said the experiences echo concerns raised by different groups locally and across North America in recent years.

He said particularly in the inner-city, where issues such poverty, racism and the lingering effects of colonization are felt acutely, having police in schools instead of other supports causes harm.

“We’re really eroding trust,” he said. “We’re damaging communities and we’re not really promoting all this equitable relations that the police and some school admin promote … that this is relationship building and building safety. It’s not.”

There are 18 police working for the resource officer program, 11 of which are school resource officers.

Ennab’s research comes as some divisions have stopped participating in the SRO program.

The Louis Riel School Division axed the program last fall, citing concerns of inequities and racism raised by Black, Indigenous and other people of colour as part of its rationale. The Winnipeg School Division pulled out too, saying it was due to financial constraints facing the division.

The report suggests that putting police in schools exacerbates discrimination BIPOC students already face in and outside of the school system.

“Participants felt that at times, school staff enacted their racial biases by utilizing police to scare and punish racialized students,” the report states.”In this sense, school police officers were weaponized.”

Ennab said students shared stories of hearing teachers using the N-word repeatedly against students, “talking about Black people as if they’re inferior” within the context of the curriculum, or not valuing views of students of colour.

“]It’s] sometimes overt, sometimes it’s implicit,” he said.

“What’s also troubling is that when staff were present and students were getting bullied or attacked, often, according to their families, nothing was done, staff stood by and this also impacted the kid because there’s a level of trust with staff that was supposed to be there.”

‘If we had no cops, we wouldn’t be scared’

A multiracial family living in the North End told Ennab children in the neighbourhood aren’t typically bothered by anyone locally, including gangs.

“[But] if a cop came … it can escalate so quickly. I just think, to live with that fear all the time is exhausting. If we had no cops, we wouldn’t be scared.”

One account, from a Black student remarking on police in schools, states “you never know when police may turn on you.”

Another details how a student was made to remove his shirt in school during a search for drugs, while another suggests a student changed schools due their experience with an SRO.

Bonnie Emerson is superintendent of Winnipeg Police Service community engagement. (CBC)

Winnipeg police Supt. Bonnie Emerson, superintendent of community service, said she values the report but thinks what is missing are views of people who want police in schools.

“One of the most repeated requests or comments that I have from racialized, marginalized communities … is we need to have a relationship with police,” she said. “I’ve seen the positive benefits of the school resource officers.… I hope the conversations do continue.”

She suggested SROs at times perform a restorative justice role by interjecting when there is a justice-related call involving a student and stopping them from being arrested.

Talks are underway about whether to let SROs drop their uniforms and work in plainclothes in school environments, she added.

One of the objectives of the SRO program is to look at safety issues and trends in the school community, said Emerson.

“Police and politicians and school admin may double down on the safety narrative,” said Ennab. “We need a broad, organized coalition of racialized communities to be able to voice their concerns.”

The report maintains money spent on SROs would be put to better use by hiring elders, social workers and counsellors. 

It also recommends anti-racism training for staff, hiring more diverse staff in teaching and leadership roles and collecting data by race and police involvement to better track and understand issues surfaced in the report. 

The full report is being released at an event Thursday.

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