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Waterloo Catholic board used school resource officers to handle student mental health issues, tantrums: review

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

But months before that case made headlines, the board faced criticism about its reliance on police from another source: school resource officers (SROs) who felt the Catholic board’s administrators were taking advantage of them to deal with problems they could have been solving on their own.

That’s according to a review of the SRO program that was presented to the board last June. In it, administrators praised the officers for becoming a valued part of their administration team and said they relied “heavily” on them for advice in dealing with situations at school.

But, the review found, 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 taken advantage of them,” said the report from Turner Consulting Group, which specializes in workplace equity and helps school boards develop anti-racism policies and curriculum.

“[They] have brought them in for things that the school administrators should be handling themselves or using other board resources for, including school discipline, violations of the code of conduct, mental health issues and even students having temper tantrums.”

SRO programs are negotiated between local police services and school boards, and are not mandated by the Ministry of Education. Resource officers haven’t been in the local Catholic board since June 2020, when regional police “halted” the program, a board representative said in an email. 

While the program was active, SROs in Waterloo region had a range of responsibilities, from making classroom presentations, to enforcing the law, to helping students access community resources.

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

‘Not a police issue’

“There have been times when they have been called by school administrator[s] and have had to tell them that the issue is not a police issue and that perhaps they should be contacting a school social worker or other school resources,” said the report.

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

Six then-current resource officers, and two former ones, were interviewed as part of the report. It isn’t clear exactly how many shared the opinion that the administration was taking advantage of them. 

Feedback from other members of regional police, school board staff, administration, community members and students was also included in the report, which is available in full online

CBC KW 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 incident at John Sweeney that is underway. 

Downsides to using police in schools, expert says

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

CBC KW has asked the minister’s office for an update on when the review will be released, but had not yet received a response at time of publication. 

Although the details of what happened at John Sweeney still aren’t clear, two local experts say that situation — and the feedback from the SROs — point to a wider problem: that schools don’t have enough student support staff, and in some cases have ended up relying on police to fill in the gaps. 

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

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

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

She noted the problem isn’t unique to Waterloo region. Schulenberg has attended more than 2,500 police ride-alongs for her research, and said it’s fairly common for officers to be called into schools for behavioural issues — incidents that often end with them simply driving the child home. 

“We punted everything to the police; they’re the 24/7 organization,” said Schulenberg, who is with the university’s department of sociology and legal studies. 

“They’re called for these minor things, and often behavioural issues, that are supposed to be dealt with by the school.” 

Both professors said they don’t believe it makes sense for police to be dealing with a four-year-old’s behaviour.

Board doesn’t track how often police called

In response to a request from CBC KW, the school board said external researchers don’t understand the particulars of the situation where police were called to John Sweeney. 

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

With SROs out of schools, it isn’t clear just how often police are being called into schools in the region right now. 

When previously asked about the issue, the Catholic board’s chief managing officer, John Shewchuk, said schools rely on a chart that outlines a range of responses from reporting an incident online, to calling a student’s parents, to bringing in officers. 

Shewchuk said the board does not track exactly how often police are called to schools, but it’s “safe to say there are several calls for service from schools per week” for various issues on the chart. 

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

For Schulenberg, the absence of tracking is itself a problem.

“The school board has to be held accountable for the reasons that they call the police, the frequency they call the police, and whether that particular event or behaviour is covered under the Education Act and they should be dealing with it internally,” she said. 

Going forward, Schulenberg said there needs to be a serious conversation about how problems in schools are dealt with and when police need to be involved. Gallagher-Mackay called for ongoing work to challenge the “school to prison pipeline.”

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

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

In a statement, a spokesperson for Lecce’s office said it is investing $300 million for temporary staffing “to support quality learning,” and another $90 million for mental health. 

The statement didn’t specify how much of that funding is destined for Waterloo region or when it will arrive.

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