The idea of stepping up police presence in N.L. schools receives mixed reviews
The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils (NLFSC) wants inc-reased police presence in schools, but says some people seem reluctant to make that happen.
Ruby Hoskins, a parent as well as the president of the NLFSC, says having an increased police presence in schools has been discussed at numerous annual general meetings of the federation, but that hasn’t led to any changes.
“There seems to be in our province — and I don’t know why it exists here — there is a hesitancy to bring in the police,” she says.
Hoskins says administrations are reluctant to call in the authorities because of the unwanted attention it brings.
“The administration doesn’t want to call in police because if they come in, they have to tell them to search Johnny’s or Mary’s locker, and if they don’t find anything, then Johnny’s and Mary’s parents are on their case and asking, ‘Why are you picking on my kid?’” she says.
That reluctance may be understandable, but Hoskins says it doesn’t do anything about the issue of increased criminal activity in the school environment.
The sale of stolen goods is one such activity.
“When high school students or junior high students are calling their schools Costco because you can get everything there dirt cheap, there’s something wrong with the education system,” she says.
But her vision of an increased police presence isn’t having schools call in the cops every time they suspect a student is a prodigy in the ways of the five-finger discount. What she wants is an integrated relationship with police whereby they’re made a part of the school community and education process.
School Resource Officer Program
Such relationships already exist in other provinces in Canada. The School Resource Officer Program sees a member of a regional police force set up in an office in a specific school that they work out of every day.
Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown, P.E.I., participates in the program. Principal David Whitrow says the officer was brought in not because there wasn’t a positive relationship between teachers and students, but because there were issues with bullying and drugs along the perimeter of school grounds, and the level of authority the school has over what’s going on becomes hazy.
“Where we notice the difference is where the community meets the school,” says Whitrow.
The officer is in uniform and doesn’t hesitate to hand out fines or be frank about things when he sees fit, but he’s not the stereotypical stern authority figure marching up and down the halls with his billy club in a perpetual twirl and his handcuffs ever at the ready.
“He’s certainly friendly,” Whitrow says. “He’s not a security guard who doesn’t talk to people or react.”
But he is an authority figure who stands out. The relationship the officer has with the students is much along the lines of what Hoskins would like to see. The reaction to bringing him in has been good, says Whitrow.
“Very positive. I mean, 95 per cent positive,” he says. “At this point, most people would say the officer is a different type of resource in the school. Different than the guidance counsellor, different than the youth worker, different than the school’s principal administration.”
Perhaps the most telling description of the relationship between the officer and the students is that pupils are rarely sent to him. The vast majority of times, they go to him of their own free will, says Whitrow. The reasons why they visit and speak with the school resource officer vary, he adds, but can encompass situations ranging from abuse or other family disfunctions, bullying, personal drug use that a student wants to deal with, or something as serious as students getting into trouble with characters from the drug world.
Whitrow said anybody connected with the school knew there was an issue. It’s a downtown high school with 1,000 students. P.E.I. might be known as a gentle island, but it’s hardly immune from the issues facing youth in the rest of Canada.
That’s the concern Hoskins has with what she feels is a reluctance to bring police into the schools more often in this province.
“We’ve seen, even in the past month from the incidents we’ve had here locally, that it’s not always going to be in another province in another school,” she says, referring to the Dec. 20 episode when three schools in Gander were put into lockdown mode. Around 10 a.m. that morning, a handwritten letter was received at Gander Collegiate that was threatening towards the staff. It came on the heels of a Dec. 14 incident in Connecticut that saw a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary take the lives of 26 people.
The lockdowns in Gander were lifted after about an hour and there is an ongoing investigation by the RCMP.
There was some fallout from the Sandy Hook shooting in this province, but nothing anywhere near policy-changing, according to Ken Morrissey, director of communications with the Eastern School District.
“Many of our schools had long conversations with their students about that situation, and I know if parents have any concerns our administrators will talk with them and discuss that. I’m not aware of any heightened concerns that came our way.”
The Connecticut incident did heighten concerns in other cities in Canada, though. In Winnipeg, there was some demand from council that the School Resource Officer Program already in place be expanded to put more officers in more schools.
It’s the overall increase in problem behaviour in schools here that has Hoskins concerned.
“The incidents are on the rise and eventually it’s something that we’re certainly going to have to look at,” she says.
Morrissey disagrees. He says increased police presence in schools isn’t something they’re looking at right now for the simple reason that they don’t believe there is an issue.
“I don’t think we have any real issues with a lack of police presence or a need for more, by any stretch,” he says. “We do have a really good working relationship with both police forces and, while they’re probably not there every day, they are in our schools quite frequently.”
But how do police feel about how often they’re in schools?
The RNC’s Staff Sgt. Sean Ennis says the relationship they have with schools and students is tremendous.
“I think in Newfoundland right now we’re very fortunate that the relationship between police and the community is extremely strong, and I think that’s reflected in our relationship with the schools,” he says.
There are five officers in his unit whose sole assignment from now until June when schools let out is teaching programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Students Taking Responsibility in Violence Education (STRIDE) to students. He says that he’s never gotten the impression that there is a hesitation on the part of the education system to call in the authorities.
”They call us very often — any time where a situation arises when they think we can be of help,” Ennis says. “Rarely have you come across a situation where a matter has been allowed to sit on the vine because nobody felt the need to call the police. I think the schools, especially within our jurisdiction, are very quick to call.”
He says years ago when he was in school, the police were at a distance. They were more like that silent, stern authority figure who laid down the law, but had little to no relationship with people.
The police are different now, but what’s facing students is different, too, and not only since he was in school. There has been a shift just in the last five or so years.
”The reality is there are more drugs since Newfoundland has become a ‘have’ province and there’s lots of money,” says Ennis. “Those types of social issues come with being a ‘have’ province. The other side of that though is, I think even if we had remained a ‘have-not’ province and the amount of drugs in the community hadn’t increased, I think we’d still be where we are today in the approach towards kids when it comes to policing.”
Today, he says, an individual needs more education to get on the force, and the force is using education to help young people. It isn’t just about chasing criminals. And as far as major events like the Sandy Hook incident are concerned, Ennis says whether or not people want to think about something like that happening here, or if it’s likely, isn’t the point. You need to plan for what won’t hopefully ever happen, he says.
“They’re having that conversation with the kids — ‘Should this ever happen in our school, here’s what we need to do.’ And I think that’s really a positive step.”
If it did ever happen here, the real tragedy would be that the community failed to prepare, he adds.
But if such incidents are on the rise overall in North America and students here face more pressure when it comes to drugs, violence and bullying, will education be enough? The RNC does drop-ins on schools, Ennis says, and officers are encouraged to do so outside of the time they spend in there educating.
The daily walk-through by police has two sides to it that have to be considered, he says. One is that police officers carry firearms and by doing a walk-through so often, they might just be seen as a walking firearm and not the officer in the role. It can cause consternation, he says.
The other side is the peace of mind parents get if officers walk through often. And the peace of mind given by daily walk-throughs is exactly what the NLFSC’s Hoskins is looking for.
“As a parent myself, I would love to see it every day,” she says.
That way, she says, there would be a deterrent to skulduggery, and perhaps people would be dissuaded from the notion that the police only show up when something bad happens.
Morrissey says while they don’t do daily walk-throughs, the police do visit schools often.
“They’re welcome to do that and they offer a variety of programs. And that’s probably one of the main reasons we feel it’s not needed at this point.”
Ennis agrees, and says the relationship police have with staff and students now is great.
Security is on the radar for a private school in St. John’s, though.
“As far as overall school security, it is something we are talking about,” says Bob Pittman, the headmaster of Lakecrest, who says they’ve been doing so for months.
Recently, the school held a meeting to discuss the issue.
“We are in the process of reviewing our procedures and are discussing it with our parent community. At this time some tentative proposals have been made and we are still considering a number of options,” he says.
The NLFSC has been discussing the issue of increased police presence for quite a while, Hoskins says.
“The mandate of the federation is to advocate for improved services and education resources for our students,” she says.
“The focus for our AGM for the last five years has been drug abuse, addictions and bullying.”
Those are all issues that would benefit from increased police presence, she adds.
And if other parts of the country are giving an elevated police presence the passing grade, Hoskins can’t help but wonder what the issue is in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Why do they do it in other provinces and not here?”