Earlier this school year, West Kildonan Collegiate announced its “commitment to eliminate vaping and large groups gathering in the washrooms” on campus.
In a notice to families, the Winnipeg high school reiterated that vaping devices aren’t allowed on school grounds. “If necessary, we will suspend students who are vaping at school and will seek involvement of our school resource officer,” the letter reads.
School resource officers, also known as SROs, are police constables stationed in or partnered with schools. In Winnipeg, assigned SROs may be tasked with “problem solving and law enforcement” duties.
“This is what the criminalization of students for minor infractions can look like,” Police-Free Schools Winnipeg, an advocacy group seeking to end local SRO programs, posted on Instagram in response to the letter. “Threats and calling the police on students creates an unsafe atmosphere, not vaping.”
“Unsafe” may be an understatement. When Police-Free Schools Winnipeg and researcher Fadi Ennab interviewed local students and guardians, they found that “the involvement of police generated feelings of intimidation and fear for Indigenous and Black families.”
Participants used the words distressed, intimidated, scared and paranoid to describe their experiences. Eliminating SRO programs may help alleviate some of this torment, but police officers and legal action aren’t the only threats students face.
Kelsey McKay, a former Winnipeg highschool football coach and teacher, now faces dozens of charges for allegedly luring, harassing and sexually assaulting students when he worked at Churchill High School and Vincent Massey Collegiate in the 1990s and 2000s.
David Bueti, a former teacher at Steinbach Regional Secondary School, was recently charged with assaulting six students on school property between Feb. 1 and May 31, 2022.
In one United States city, an analysis of police data reveals a grim statistic. “Thousands of people have been shot near schools in Philadelphia in recent years.” That includes 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde, who was shot and killed during a high-school football practice last month.
“We are failing our kids,” State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta proclaimed in a guest essay for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He writes specifically about gun violence, but many American schools, districts and policies both fail to protect and actively harm students.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania recently filed a complaint that one school district has fostered and perpetuated “a hostile environment” for queer students.
In Virginia, proposed new policies claim to “serve the needs of all students” and help schools “respect all students” but, in actuality, greatly restrict the rights of transgender, intersex and gender-diverse children. Under these new rules, students would be required to use bathrooms and go by the pronouns associated with their sex assigned at birth.
As Esau McCaulley writes in a New York Times guest essay, “teachers have the power to build or destroy, to plant or uproot hope in young minds.” However, “the fundamental question of what makes a healthy classroom cannot be restricted to the material that is taught.”
School safety depends on more than the lessons about consent, inclusivity and respect that should happen in every classroom. It includes creating cultures where students are able to speak freely about predatory teachers and violent practices. It extends to the policies districts, communities and even police departments enact and enforce.
For schools to ever become safe spaces, these policies – and the attitudes that prompted their creation – need to change. Soon.
A former sports broadcaster, Danielle Doiron is now a writer, editor and educator. Find them in Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Fargo and, occasionally, on the airwaves.
Published in Volume 77, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 27, 2022)