Police in schools program made students feel ‘targeted and unsafe,’ report from Winnipeg school division says

A report commissioned by a Winnipeg school division on a program that put police officers in schools found it led to increased risks and feelings of fear and discrimination, particularly among Black and Indigenous students and people of colour. 

Louis Riel School Division commissioned the report, completed August 2021, and scrapped its school resource officer program later that year. 

The report itself was not released until Friday, when the school division published a redacted version on its website.

The author of the report, Fadi Ennab, concluded the program “exposes families to further risks, including unwanted and unwarranted police involvement in their lives,” he wrote.

Ennab also wrote that the program “at best … is ineffective in its stated goals of ‘building relationships’ and ‘promoting safety and education.’ At worst, the [school resource officer] program negatively impacts the school space by making many students and parents feel unsafe and targeted.”

A man is pictured on a zoom call.
Fadi Ennab’s report recommended the Louis Riel School Division cancel their school resource officer program, which it did in October 2021. (CBC)

The report is based on a combination of interviews one-on-one and an online survey with students, parents, teachers and administrators. A total of 30 people were interviewed, more than 3,000 responded to the survey and 2,682 responses were used in the report.

The report prioritized respondents who were Indigenous and Black, given those groups being more disproportionately targeted by police due to systemic racism in research and media.   

One student, who identified as Black, told the researcher “if I see a police officer I would panic. Even long after the police officer is gone, I would find myself shaking because anything could happen.”

Another student, who identified as Indigenous, said: “If I were to see a [school resource] officer, I’d find myself watching their weapons even if no threat is imminent.”

Ennab said a lack of perspectives from disenfranchised groups about police in schools can be harmful.

“There’s a lot of bias involved in the system. We have mostly white leaders, and privilege that doesn’t even consider those experiences and prioritize them,” he told CBC in an interview on Friday.

“There’s direct experiences of harm — being arrested, being scared physically, which really interrupts your education when you’re talking about [children] being impacted with those experiences,” he said. “They can be really harmful — not just on the person, but a ripple effect on the family, the community, their peers.”

Winnipeg police declined to be interviewed for the report, but submitted written responses to the questions, Ennab wrote.

Large sections of the report have been blacked out.

Since writing the report, Ennab has published further research, which he says backs up the accounts documented in his study for Louis Riel School Division.

“It’s consistent with evidence-based research on policing across Canada … and the United States, and globally. When we have police in schools and communities, we do more harm than good. Especially when they’re racialized,” Ennab said.

Emphasizing BIPOC voices

In writing the report, Ennab emphasized the experiences Black and Indigenous students and people of colour.

Participants spoke of incidence of violence by police toward people of colour, including the killing of George Floyd and the shooting death of Eishia Hudson in Winnipeg, fuelling their fears and distrust of police.

The report recommended the division cancel the program, which it did in October 2021.

This followed a similar decision by Winnipeg School Division earlier that year, citing financial considerations.

The report from Louis Riel School Division noted the program cost $60,000 a year, with an additional $15,000 of “in-kind” expenses, such as office space, phones and supplies. 

Beginning in 2016, the program included one officer covering the division’s 40 schools, although the officer was primarily assigned to Glenlawn Collegiate and Windsor Park Collegiate for the majority of the of the program’s lifespan.

Louis Riel School Division declined to comment on the release of the report.

Following the decision to end the program in 2021, Supt. Christian Michalik released a statement. “Feedback from our community, specifically those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), illuminated issues of ongoing inequity and systemic racism in LRSD,” Michalik wrote in the statement.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Winnipeg police said the report is just one of many reviews of the program in its more than 20-year existence.

“We value our partnerships with school divisions which participate in the program, and support our school resource officers who have developed positive and beneficial relationships with students, families, and school communities,” the spokesperson wrote in an email statement.

Although Louis Riel School Division shut down its school resource officer program, it has continued to involve police officers in student programming, which can also put students at risk, Ennab said.

He pointed to an incident when a student at Samuel Burland School was bitten by a dog belonging to a police K-9 unit, which was giving a presentation at the school.

Ennab was surprised to see the report released on a Friday nearly two years after the project. He would have liked to see it released sooner.

“We can’t say it’s better late than not, because sitting on such evidence is really damaging, voices could have been heard earlier and it might have informed other key decisions.”