Waterloo Catholic Board used school resource officers to manage student mental health issues and temper tantrums: review

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The Waterloo Catholic District School Board’s use of the police has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after news broke that police had been called to John Sweeney Catholic Elementary School. last fall to deal with the behavior of a four-year-old student.

But months before the case made headlines, the board was criticized for its reliance on the police by another source: school resource officers (SROs) who believed that Catholic board trustees took advantage of them to solve problems that they could have solved themselves. .

This is according to a review of the SRO program that was presented to the board last June. In it, the administrators praised the officers for becoming a valuable part of their administrative team and said they relied “heavily” on them for guidance in handling situations at the school.

But, according to the review, not all SROs felt this was a good thing.

“They shared that because they have become a familiar part of the school community and are seen as part of the administrative team, school administrators have benefited,” said the report from Turner Consulting Group, which specializes in in workplace equity and helps school boards develop anti-racism policies and programs.

“[They] brought them in for things school administrators should handle themselves or use other board resources for, including school discipline, code of conduct violations, mental health issues, and even students with temper tantrums.”

SRO programs are negotiated between local police departments and school boards and are not mandated by the Department of Education. Resource officers have not been part of the local Catholic council since June 2020, when regional police “shut down” the scheme, a council representative said in an email.

While the program was active, Waterloo Region SROs had a variety of responsibilities, ranging from delivering classroom presentations, to enforcing the law, to helping students access community resources.

The report noted that resource officers, rather than teachers or administrators, helped students connect with guidance counselors, social workers and other community resources — though, again, the officers themselves didn’t always think it was the best use of their time.

“Not a police problem”

“There were times when they were called by the school administrator[s] and had to tell them that the problem was not a police issue and that they may need to contact a school social worker or other school resources, the report said.

He went on to say that SROs felt they could have better focused on the proactive side of their jobs if they hadn’t been called into schools to deal with things “that school staff or a community agency could manage”.

Six then-serving Resource Officers and two former Resource Officers were interviewed for the report. It is unclear how many shared the view that the administration was taking advantage of them.

Comments from other regional police, school board staff, administration, community members and students were also included in the report, which is available fully online.

CBC KW has requested interviews with the Waterloo Regional Police Service and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board for this story. Both organizations declined, citing a provincial review of the John Sweeney incident that is ongoing.

Disadvantages of using the police in schools, according to an expert

Education Minister Stephen Lecce ordered the review late last month, saying in a statement that “under no circumstances should the police be called upon to remove a four-year-old pupil from a school in this province”.

CBC KW asked the minister’s office for an update on the release date of the review, but had not yet received a response at the time of publication.

Although the details of what happened at John Sweeney are still unclear, two local experts say the situation – and comments from the SROs – point to a wider problem: schools do not have enough staff to support to students and in some cases ended up relying on the police to fill in the gaps.

“We need more resources in social work, mental health, child and youth work in our schools, and all we have are police officers, who have real downsides,” Kelly said. Gallagher-Mackay, assistant professor in the law and society program. at Wilfrid Laurier University, which studies educational inequalities.

Jennifer Schulenberg, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, agrees. She described the SRO report as demonstrative of “years, and years, and years” of cuts to funding for educational and behavioral supports in school.

Jennifer Schulenberg, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, says even outside the region, police are often called into schools to deal with student behavior issues. (University of Waterloo)

She noted that the problem is not unique to Waterloo Region. Schulenberg witnessed more than 2,500 police trips for his research and said it was quite common for officers to be called into schools for behavioral issues – incidents that often ended simply to bring the child home.

“We gave everything to the police; it’s the 24/7 organization,” said Schulenberg, who works in the university’s sociology and legal studies department.

“They get called in for those little things, and often behavioral issues, that are supposed to be dealt with by the school.”

The two teachers said they did not think it made sense for the police to deal with the behavior of a four-year-old child.

Council disregards how often police called

In response to a request from CBC KW, the school board said outside researchers did not understand the details of the situation in which police were called to John Sweeney.

An email from the board said the school administrator had called 911, rather than the police, and that “in 17 years of administration, the administrator has already called the police once.”

With ORS out of schools, it’s unclear how often police are called to schools in the area at this time.

Asked about the problem previously, Catholic council chief executive John Shewchuk said schools are relying on a chart that outlines a range of responses from reporting an incident online to calling parents to a student through the appointment of agents.

Shewchuk said the board doesn’t track exactly how often police are called to schools, but it’s “safe to say there are multiple service calls from schools a week” for various issues on the board.

An incident classification chart provided by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board shows the protocol agreed between the board and the Waterloo Region Police for when officers should be called to a school. (Waterloo Catholic District School Board)

For Schulenberg, the lack of follow-up is in itself a problem.

“The school board should be held accountable for why it calls the police, how often it calls the police, and whether that particular event or behavior is covered by the Education Act and should be manage internally,” she said. .

Going forward, Schulenberg said there needs to be a serious conversation about how issues in schools are handled and when the police should be involved. Gallagher-Mackay called for continued work to challenge the “school to prison pipeline.”

Both professors said schools also need more funding for student support positions, such as social workers, child and youth workers and guidance counsellors.

CBC KW has contacted the Ministry of Education to ask if it plans to release additional funds for these positions in the coming months.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Lecce office said it was investing $300 million in temporary staff “to support quality learning”, and another $90 million for mental health.

The statement does not specify how much of this funding is going to Waterloo Region or when it will arrive.

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