EPS school resource officers removed from public schools while program goes under review
EDMONTON -- It's back to school for students and staff only.
Edmonton Public Schools announced Friday, the division's second day of classes, school resource officers deployed by the Edmonton Police Service would not be returning to its hallways for the 2020-21 school year.
Board chair Trisha Estabrooks and superintendent Darrel Robertson revealed instead plans for a replacement program while the SRO initiative, first instated in 1979, is reviewed by a third party.
“I think the big concern that I heard was we have a program in our school that had never been independently reviewed. We had questions about well, what is the role of police officers in our schools? How do students and families and staff feel about the presence of police officers in our schools?" Estabrooks commented.
“This is the right path forward for us as a school division for this current school year."
The new program will be called the Youth Enhanced Deployment (YED) model and will use Edmonton Police Service officers who have community policing duties and are trained to respond to calls involving young people.
They will not be assigned or based in any of Edmonton’s public schools, Estabrooks told media, calling the new model "dramatically different."
Robertson added, "These are officers that have specialized training with respect to working with youth, and I think the goals of the SRO program ... remain the same.
"They’re looking to try to build relationships with youth that will happen outside of the school, working with community partners, so on and so forth. They are trying to keep youth out of the youth criminal justice sysem."
EPS called the suspension of SROs disappointing.
"We form relationships. Those are sort of hard to step away from," said Supt. Nicole Chapdelaine, of the police division the SRO unit falls under.
"We recognize that this research, regardless of how it's come to be, will identify if there's certain things that we need to change. I think as an organization and as a unit, they're open to that. And I think we need to keep an open mind."
HOW THE INTERIM MODEL WILL WORK
According to EPS, school resource officers designed the new model in April 2020 when the pandemic forced schools to close.
Moving forward, officers formerly known as SROs will be called YED constables but will continue to work under the Integrated Community Safety branch.
Chapdelaine explained some of their duties would be to respond to dispatch calls involving youth, follow up with vulnerable youth identified by EPS, conduct youth engagement events in schools, and "respond to identified youth hotspot geographical areas in an effort to touch base and talk with youth and provide the support that's required."
When a school needs police help, it will have to make the request to the EPS non-emergency line or 911.
"A YED constable will respond if available. That is the purpose of why they are out there. If all YED constables are otherwise detained or usy with other calls, other available officers will respond to any school concerns,” Chapdelaine said.
The SRO program will technically continue to exist, as the use of SROs in Edmonton public schools has just been suspended.
EPS provides 15 SROs to Edmonton Catholic Schools -- six junior high schools and eight high schools -- and one SRO to the Edmonton Islamic Academy.
"This review, I think, will in the end come out with what some of the gaps are," Chapdelaine commented.
"At the end of the day, it's the youth who are important here. It's not about the EPS and the school board."
A Catholic school board spokesperson called the SRO program an "important" part of its student support service, but that it'd be conducting a "program evaluation" during the 2021-21 school year for areas of growth.
'NEED TO GET ON WITHTHE BUSINESS OF TEACHING AND LEARNING'
Seventeen police officers were in 21 Edmonton public junior and high schools in 2019-20.
The division spent just over $1 million on the program in the previous year. The cost in 2019-20, until March, was $763,000. According to Estabrooks, the division has to pay a remaining $325,000 under a memorandum of understanding with EPS.
However, the division said the deceision was not a budgetary one.
The board had been scheduled to continue discussion about SROs at a Sept. 8 meeting, months after what Estabrooks called “difficult but I would say really important and, quite frankly, really necessary conversations” about police officers in Edmonton’s public schools.
Robertson said he took the decision into his own hands.
“I think that, for this new school year, we have plenty to focus on, and so putting together an alternative to the SRO program while we have an opportunity to look at and research the model and make those evidence-based decisions ultimately around the school resource officer program, is really important.
"But we really need to get on with the business of teaching and learning."
Estabrooks commented, "The fact that we’ve endorsed this and supported this as strongly as we do, really does mean that that vote to reconsider, it’s not necessary at the Sept. 8 meeting.”
A plan for the 2021-22 school year will be decided after the SRO review is finished. Officials said the findings would be critical in shaping the future involvement of officers in public schools.
At the end of June, a motion to reopen the board’s discussion to suspend the SRO program was defeated.
Estabrooks advocated for continued debate after the board voted one week earlier not to suspend the program.
The first round of discussion saw one trustee resign after her comments about refugee students were denounced as racist.
The renewed look at SROs' efficacy was motivated by similar discussions happening in City Hall over defunding Edmonton Police Service.
The force will be left with a roughly $1-million hole without the renewal of an SRO arrangement with EPSB this year.