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Students benefit from police in schools, study suggests

Hamilton police officer Jackie Masters spends some time with students in a Grade 3 class at W. H. Ballard Elementary School in Hamilton on Sept. 21, 2017.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A new study that suggests the practice of placing police officers in some Ontario high schools made students feel safer surveyed only Grade 9s – teens who would have had the least amount of exposure to the program.

But one of the researchers at Carleton University defended the study's methodology, saying that in order to understand the value of the program, it was important to look at how those entering high school – and likely being exposed to it for the first time – felt about the program and how their experiences changed over time.

"Our goal was to look at value. To look at value, we had to have a before and an after," Linda Duxbury, a professor in Carleton's Sprott School of Business, said at a news conference on Wednesday as she released her findings.

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The study of the controversial school resource officer (SRO) program in Peel's public and Catholic high schools comes amid intense debate on whether putting uniformed police officers in schools makes classrooms intimidating spaces for students, especially racialized, undocumented and Indigenous children. The Toronto District School Board cancelled its program in November despite a survey that showed a majority of students had an overall positive impression of officers in the schools. However, some students said they felt intimidated, targeted and uncomfortable. This decision followed months of pressure from several activist groups, comprised of parents, community members and educators, calling for an end to the SRO program.

In examining its SRO program, the TDSB surveyed more than 15,000 students in Grades 10, 11 and 12. The district also conducted a series of student focus groups in schools.

The independent study on Peel's program surveyed nearly 1,300 Grade 9s in September, 2015, and then in March, 2016. Prof. Duxbury said she estimated that about two-thirds of those students did the survey both times. The researchers also conducted a series of interviews about the SRO program that included only eight students.The two-year study, which involved five high schools, set out to determine the value of the SRO program in improving safety for students and staff. It was federally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The researchers found that the presence of police in schools reduced crime and bullying, while improving the relationship between students and police. Prof. Duxbury said that her analysis showed that for every dollar invested in Peel's SRO program, the social and economic benefits were 11 times greater.

Peel Regional Police has SROs assigned to every high school across the region at a cost of about $9-million annually. The program has been in place for more than two decades and involves armed police officers performing duties that include walking around schools, patrolling neighbourhoods and participating in extracurricular activities, such as sports and school charity events.

The TDSB's program differed because uniformed police officers patrolled only 45 schools in the city, not all. Critics noted that many of the chosen schools had large populations of racialized students, particularly black ones. The TDSB program was introduced a decade ago after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute.

"My conclusion is, at least in Peel and the way the Peel program works, should it be continued? Yes. Should other communities consider? Yes. But remember to get these kind of results, you have to run the program like Peel," Prof. Duxbury said. She added: "They spend the money on a program and they get the results."

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But Sandy Hudson, a spokeswoman for Black Lives Matter Toronto, questioned the methodology and conclusions. Ms. Hudson noted there was no mention of race in the study. (The Carleton study was conducted before the debate around SRO's in Toronto schools intensified.)

"This research project was taken up as though race doesn't exist at all. In fact, race isn't mentioned once in the entire report," Ms. Hudson said. "This is not a report about the issues that we've all been calling attention to about the school resource officer program. … I do not know who would take a look at this and think that it's valuable information to make some decisions about the safety of children."

Peter Joshua, director of the Peel District School Board, said the Carleton study will be reviewed by trustees and staff, adding that the Peel school board has no plans to conduct its own survey. Mr. Joshua said the SRO program has "tremendous value" and helps "build strong and positive relationships between students and police."

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