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Comment: Police should not be the only adults welcomed in schools

I was never a teacher or a trustee, but I was Alberta’s education minister for seven years.
There should be more to schools than the program of studies. Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

A commentary by a former ­education minister in Alberta.

Should police ­­resource/­liaison officers be in Victoria’s schools? That is for the trustees to decide, and they are getting advice or demands from all sides.

I don’t have advice or demands, but perhaps a ­different perspective would be helpful.

I was never a teacher or a trustee, but I was Alberta’s education minister for seven years. I developed a passionate commitment to an aspect of public school education that isn’t thought or talked about much, although it is vital to our well-being.

Unlike any other kind of schooling, a public school exists, in part, to be a deliberate model of a civil democratic community.

The public school is our ­chosen means for drawing youth (students) into a rich understanding of what it means to live in community, and what it means to be a citizen of our particular community. I agree that all education is political.

Part of the work of trustees is to maintain a kind of membrane around the school, so that the school experience has some “protection” while at the same time insuring that what is life-giving passes from the larger community into the protected environment of the public school.

In my experience, this means that there should be more adults in the public school, presenting more representations of what it means to be a person and a citizen.

There should be more teachers in school because “teaching” is more than presenting curriculum: it is also, simply listening, or empathizing, whether in the classroom, or the hallway, or the playground.

And these important tasks require time, energy and undistracted attention.

(As an aside, the presence of more adults in any school would make the school more safe although, in some schools, it would be unfair to assign assuring physical safety to most adults as part of their role.)

I also believe there should be other representations of the community in the school, and on a regular basis. (When I was a child, my elementary school had a school nurse on site and in and out of classrooms.)

But schools are increasingly “shrunk” to be entirely about the program of studies and the curriculum, with no regard for their role as a deliberate model of a civil democratic community.

Provincial legislation and school board policies make it ever more difficult for the community to display a presence in a school — with the exception of police.

School resource officers are police, present in a school on an ongoing basis. The presence of these officers is a contentious matter.

Do they improve personal safety? Do they reduce crime? Do they improve student perception of police and the role of police? Are they in uniform or in civvies? Do they frighten students? Do they increase the feeling that the school is ­“militarized”?

A public school exists to be a deliberate model of a civil ­democratic community, and as a deliberate model of a civil democratic community, public schools, again uniquely, are ­universally accessible, without pre-condition of any kind.

Because public schools ­celebrate diversity they are more diverse than any other system of schooling. One of the implications of this is that ­students have a diverse ­reaction to the immediacy of police ­officers, no matter what their title in the school itself.

As a deliberate model of a civil democratic society, it is advantageous to mirror the larger community as fully as possible. It is also advantageous to represent the “ideal” of the community more than its imperfections and shortcomings.

School resource officers represent the school opening itself up to the presence of the community, by which opening it more accurately reflects the larger community.

It is regrettable that the school opens itself first to the police, rather than to ­librarians, or public health nurses, or ­service clubs, or many other agents of the community.

Police should not be the first indication that the school is a deliberate model of a civil democratic community.

By extension, it is certainly regrettable that the school tries to resist the presence of any other community agents except the police. But the presence of the police in a school certainly makes the argument that other agents of the community should be welcomed into the school.

The presence of resource officers, unaccompanied by other agents of the community, leaves students with an entirely wrong idea about the priorities of the community.

School resource officers are usually (but not always) ­carefully chosen for their ­personality, character, and ­commitment to a healthy policing ethos.

As such, they provide a good example of what students and adults should insist would characterize the presence of the police in the larger community.

In the school, resource officers don’t present themselves as para-militaries, with a military outlook and military equipment. They are more like what Sir Robert Peel envisioned, and they illustrate what we should reasonably expect/demand of police on the street.

At the same time, there are students who have been traumatized by an experience with police, or whose family or close friends have experienced such trauma, perhaps here or perhaps in another place. Resource officers and their advocates must deal with this powerful reality in a meaningful way. It is not enough to say, “Get over it.”

Resource officers must not only be present: they must be teaching. Wherever there is a resource officer, classroom instruction should include the resource officer in discussion about the idea of policing in a democracy, the intention to avoid the presence of military on the streets, and the idea of the police officer as an agent of the civilian population.

Finally, there are many ­reasons why more adults should be in every school. There should be more teachers as well as adults with other qualifications.

Because there is more to a public school than the program of studies, the curriculum and pedagogy. The presence of more adults would benefit the public school in many ways, beyond making the school as safe as it would be with a resource officer.

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