Photo courtesy Police Free Schools Winnipeg
In the summer of 2020, the group Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg (J4BLW) sparked a wave of abolitionist organizing in the city after collecting over 120,000 signatures on a petition calling for the defunding and eventual end to the Winnipeg Police Service. Inspired and called to action by the demands of J4BLW, a group of parents, teachers, and students came together to form Police-Free Schools Winnipeg (PFSW). Their goal is to get school resource officers (SROs) out of schools and transform the resources available at schools so that no student ever has a cop called on them.
In Canada, the first SRO program was implemented in 1979, without prior consultation with students or parents. SRO programs were soon being implemented across the country and expanded significantly in the following decades. PFSW’s first campaign extensively documented the negative effects of SROs, which are particularly egregious for racialized and disabled students. The group collected and shared anonymous stories of student experiences with SROs, and the data gathered is harrowing.
According to Irene Bindi, a parent and organizer with PFSW, instances of “outright violence and arrests; entry into the school-to-prison pipeline; monitoring and surveillance; and school absenteeism, via the pushing out of school of students who are afraid to encounter police [due to] sexual harassment” were all reported by students.
PFSW has also organized phone zaps, email campaigns, and a public discussion featuring Toronto-based scholar and author of Policing Black Lives, Robyn Maynard. Since the group was formed, half a million dollars have been cut from the Winnipeg School Division’s annual SRO budget, and Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) has terminated their one SRO position. In a statement made October 2021, LRSD superintendent Christian Michalik said, “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.”
The problem of policing in schools goes deeper than SROs. Bindi explains, “The protocols in place for staff to pick up the phone and call police [on students] are very lax in all provinces.” This results in police being called on students rather than connecting students with community support and resources.
While a number of SRO programs across Canada have been ended after facing pushback from community groups, some school districts have tried to improve their optics rather than address fundamental issues. “What we’ve noticed as programs are cut is that police departments and school divisions will look for ways to rename those programs or reinvolve police under different guises, and the end result is the same,” Bindi explains.
Bindi emphasizes the need to view abolition work in schools within a broader context, saying, “I feel that it’s also very important to look at this as a local, national, and international movement.” PFSW emphasizes the need for non-carceral community support to replace policing. “There’s [a] high risk of negative outcomes due to police offering the wrong advice to kids on a variety of issues that should instead be handled by counsellors, teachers, nurses, and […] more integrated community supports, including Indigenous Elders, and trusted community organizations.”