A program that places police officers in certain southern Ontario high schools made students feel safer and allowed them to build good relationships with law enforcement, a study released Wednesday suggested.
The study from Carleton University examined the School Resource Officer program at high schools in Peel Region — which is made up of three municipalities west of Toronto — from 2014 to 2017 to determine the value of having officers in the schools.
Researchers conducted nearly 1,300 surveys of Grade 9 students at five Peel schools and conducted interviews with school resource officers, school administrators and community members.
"Every single one of these different groups (said) students feel safer at school," said Carleton business professor Linda Duxbury, one of the study's lead researchers. "The goal of the Peel program is to make people feel safer in schools so they can learn more ... Every single source of data said it (met that goal)."
The study found students reported being less fearful in school and in the community since the program began more than two decades ago, and schools reported fewer incidents of crime and bullying.
Additionally, officers who build a relationship with a student may be more likely to divert that student towards rehabilitation programs outside the justice system if the student gets in trouble, the study found.
"We're finding the diversion program really helps people learn from their mistakes and it takes people out of the criminal (system) so they're not going to have a criminal record when they become an adult," Peel Regional Police Chief Jennifer Evans said.
The School Resource Officer program costs the regional police force about $9 million per year, according to the report. There are currently 60 school resource officers in Peel Region, and every high school in the region has an officer assigned to it, Duxbury said.
Some advocates who have campaigned against the program in the past criticized the report for being too broad.
Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, said the study should have focused specifically on students from marginalized backgrounds, who are more likely to feel targeted by police.
"The Peel report makes it seem as if it's a popularity contest, where they are just looking simply at the majority numbers, whereas if we are looking as these detrimental issues within our schools, and beyond we really have to … look at who it negatively impacts and put more importance on that," she said.
"Regardless of any report that attempts to show that having police in our schools makes our schools safer … it's really about relationships of students with educators," Vasquez Jimenez added. "We need properly funded schools (with) an increase in mental health and wellness workers, social workers, community child and youth workers, and we need these educators to look … like the diverse representation of our students."
Duxbury said that, because the student surveys were anonymous, researchers were not able to track the race or culture of respondents.
Eight students who were interviewed in person for the report all came from racialized backgrounds, however, and the diversity of Peel schools ensures that the research results likely represent a wide variety of viewpoints, she said.
"One dominant finding is every single group of student benefited and felt safer over time," Duxbury said.
The Toronto District School Board cancelled its own School Resource Officer program in November after a report by board staff found many racialized students felt harassed, targeted and unsafe when police were in their schools.