Sunday, September 03, 2023

Police in schools - where are we now?

While I am on the subject of education (see my previous post on cellphones in schools), another perennial debating point is whether police belong in schools. 

My gut reaction may be "no, of course not", but this issue is not as simple as it seems either. Police officers, or school resource officers (SRO) as they are officially referred to, reduce crime, keep students safe, and improve police-community relations, argue proponents. But they are expensive, disproportionately disadvantage Black, Indigenous and other marginalized students, and contribute to a "school-to-prison pipeline", counter detractors. And, who knows, maybe both arguments are correct, and then it becomes a judgement of whether the pros outweighs the cons. All of this is also in the context of a marked increase in incidents of violence in Canadian schools.

What is interesting, though, is new research, admittedly limited to schools in Edmonton, Alberta, but there is no reason to suspect that the conclusions are not equally valid in other cities in the country. This found that - regardless of race, sexual orientation and self-reported disability status - some 45% of students and parents reported positive experiences with their SROs, citing feelings of safety, assistance with victimization and personal problems, conflict resolution, mentorship, legal education, and innovative strategies for discipline and reform. This compares with just 7% who reported negative experiences. 

Further to this, few students apparently felt targeted or intimidated by their SRO (again regardless of their background), and few felt that Black, Indigenous or other racialized students were treated worse than their White counterparts, or that they were biased against sexual minorities or students with disabilities. Some 80% of respondents (students, parents and teachers) wanted to retain or reinstate the SRO program at their schools, compared to 8% who wanted to see it suspended permanently.

This seems to be a resounding accolade for the police in schools program, although the research has been largely dismissed by many anti-racism campaigners as it does not play into their narrative. It also flies in the face of many reactions to policing in schools south of the border, which tend to be much more negative, and particularly play up the line that racialized students are receiving excessive and disproportionate attention from police officers. There isn't that much hard research to back this up, but that certainly seems to be the anecdotal response.

And here's where my reaction gets a bit contentious. It's about the use of the word "disproportionate". Maybe proportionately more Black and racialized students are receiving attention from in-school police officers than their white counterparts, and in that respect the attention is disproportionate. But is the attention unwarranted? I have not seen any data on this. 

What I mean is, if a diaproportionate number of racialized students are in fact committing crimes, then an apparently disproportionate police response will probably follow, but that does not make the attention unwarranted (and therefore probably not racially motivated). I have no idea whether this is in fact the case, and I am certainly not jumping to that conclusion; I just feel we need to know in order to properly assess the program. 

For example, are there any statistics on the relative number of convictions of racialized students as a percentage of those arrested, compared to White students? That at least would give an indication of whether school police are unduly targeting Black and Indigenous students, on spurious or unwarranted grounds. That WOULD be prima facie evidence of racism at work. But let's not just assume.

I know this will be anathema to many an anti-racism campaigner. But I don't think it is unreasonable to ask the question (especially as I am not assuming an answer). 

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