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Hamilton school board scraps program that placed police officers in schools

A school board in Hamilton has ended a program that placed police officers in elementary and high schools, as some school boards across Canada weigh their own programs amid ongoing protests denouncing racism and police violence.

A school board in Hamilton has ended a program that placed police officers in elementary and high schools, as some school boards across Canada weigh their own programs amid ongoing protests denouncing racism and police violence.

Trustees with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board voted Monday night to scrap the police liaison program, but also to have staff review it and look into alternative supports.

The motion also called for staff to identify gaps in supports for students, employees and the community, as well as next steps for developing a replacement program.

A document presented at Monday's meeting said the board received several letters, emails and other messages in recent weeks noting that the program "creates fear and anxiety" among students — particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized students.

"The police liaison program ... may have evolved beyond its intended community policing model," the document stated.

Programs that bring officers into schools are also facing increased scrutiny in other school boards across the country, with calls to dismantle or at least re-evaluate them.

Vancouver's public school board also held a vote on its program Monday, and decided to order a third-party review that will seek input from Indigenous and Black community members.

The board rejected a motion to suspend the program until the review is completed, however. 

An Edmonton public school trustee said she plans to call for a review of its school resource officer program at a meeting Tuesday, and for the program to be halted until the review is done.

Bridget Stirling said she has several concerns about the program, including the potential over-policing of racialized students and a lack of transparency surrounding the screening of officers and their practices in schools.

The program is not subject to annual reporting and costs the board about a million dollars a year at a time when teachers and educators are being laid off, she said.

"The combination of the two has really brought this back to the forefront," she said.

Meanwhile, a campaign in Ontario is seeking to have the province make all schools police-free, including at the post-secondary level, saying it should not be treated as a local issue.

"It's not a one school board or one post-secondary campus issue, it indeed is a systemic issue that demands a systems response," said Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-director of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, which is involved in the campaign.

"Ultimately what we need is political will. We've been seeing local organizing and have been connecting with local campaigns that have been pushing for the removal of their police-in-schools program for years," she said. 

In Toronto, the country's largest public school board eliminated its program in 2017 after a report found some students felt uncomfortable or even intimidated by the presence of officers.

The Hamilton program had six officers assigned to 38 Hamilton high schools over the school year, and five officers were assigned to 158 elementary schools, according to the document presented at Monday's meeting.

The officers split their time equally between schools and the community, and the program was funded by the Hamilton police service.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Hamilton-Wentworth board chair Alex Johnstone said the board heard positive stories about the liaison program, but in the end it was the right decision to end it.

"All, not most, of our students must feel welcomed, supported, safe and engaged in their learning. This is the work of equity and meeting the needs of all," Johnstone said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2020.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press


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