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Police praise officers in school program amid backlash in Winnipeg


September 28, 2020
By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg police say social media posts lauding the police-in-schools program on its Instagram are not part of an organized campaign, but rather an effort to address misconceptions about an initiative that has recently been questioned.

On Wednesday, the account @wpgpoliceofficial posted white tiles that display quotes from anonymous parents in the River East Transcona School Division who participated in a survey about the division’s school resource officer program in the spring.

The tiles mirror posts on the Police-Free Schools Winnipeg website — except they contain quotes that praise the program rather than call for its end.

One parent called a police presentation in school about internet safety “invaluable” to their child. Some parents reported their children saying police presence limits incidents, bullying included, at school. Multiple guardians cited the program as a way police build positive relationships.

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“I have been receiving, as I oversee the school engagement section, specific questions about what the (officers) do and don’t do, so it’s clear that there’s some misunderstanding,” said Insp. Bonnie Emerson of the community support division at the Winnipeg Police Service.

Citing accountability as a key tenet of the service, Emerson said police are presenting information about the program and what it is intended for, as well as survey results compiled by River East Transcona; the division received positive feedback during the first year (2019-20) an officer visited area schools, prompting the administration to request more officers this year.

The police-in-schools program — a countrywide initiative introduced to Winnipeg in 2002 — currently includes 19 uniformed officers who work in six city school divisions. Officer duties range from giving presentations about drugs to “participation in a threat assessment.”

Since its inception, supporters have insisted the program builds understanding between officers, students and communities.

Cam Scott with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg argues a spotlight must be put on the negative experiences faced by students and staff from low-income and racialized communities.

In recent months, community members in Vancouver and Edmonton have mobilized to call for an end to police programs in their respective cities. The movements argue hosting police affects the well-being, success and safety of Black, Indigenous and other students of colour who have had negative experiences with authorities.

Similar movements in Toronto and Hamilton have been successful. In 2017, the Toronto District School Board voted to remove police from its schools after a six-week community review.

The Winnipeg campaign is calling for “an equity-based, community-led evaluation” that breaks down respondents’ racial identities.

“If you’re privileged enough to feel at ease around police, we think it’s really important to hear and believe the voices of people harmed by policing rather than drown them out,” Scott said, adding that’s exactly what the @wpgpoliceofficial posts do: “contradict or shout over those voices.”

The posts are a stark contrast to those on the @policefreeschoolswpg Instagram page, which de-tails accounts of police presence intimidating students and staff from marginalized communities and concerns about the glorification of violence in
schools because police have guns and batons.

As far as Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O’Leary is concerned, the officers devote time to problem-solving and proactive policing.

These officers work in interdisciplinary teams with school counsellors and other staff, O’Leary said. Without their de-escalation tactics, he said there would be more interactions with police who are called for emergency situations.

“It’s not a question of having police in schools or not,” O’Leary said. “It’s what kind of police we have in schools.”

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society had no comment.

— By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press, with files from Joyanne Pursaga

The Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2020