A program that places police officers in some southern Ontario high schools made students feel safer and helped them build positive relationships with law enforcement, a study released Wednesday concluded.
But some anti-racism activists argued the study that examined the program in Peel Region, west of Toronto, failed to properly take into account the effect police presence in schools has on students from racialized backgrounds and other vulnerable minority groups.
After conducting nearly 1,300 surveys of students and interviewing school administrators and police, researchers from Carleton University said high schools in Peel — a region made up of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon — should continue the School Resource Officer program, which has been operating in the area for over 20 years.
"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 Toronto District School Board ended a similar program of its own in November after a report by board staff found black students and other minority groups felt harassed, targeted and unsafe when police were in their schools.
The Toronto report focused primarily on the concerns of those vulnerable students, something the Peel study failed to do, said Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network.
"If we are looking at 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.
Duxbury said that because the Peel 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, she noted. Researchers surveyed students from three public high schools and two Catholic high schools, which were selected specifically because their populations represented a wide variety of racial, cultural and income-related backgrounds, she added.
"One dominant finding is that every single group of students benefited and felt safer over time," Duxbury said.
The Peel study was specifically designed to measure the financial value of the program that placed police in schools, not the views of different racial groups, Duxbury said.
Unlike other such programs in Canada, Peel's assigns an officer to every high school in the region. With an annual cost of $9 million to Peel police, the program is one of the most expensive of its kind, Duxbury said.
"There's a lot of discussion on the cost of policing, the economics of policing," Duxbury said. "People were very, very concerned, (saying), 'Look at how much police are costing, how can we get value for money?'"
The study tried to calculate the program's "social return on investment" — a means of placing an approximate dollar value on non-financial, even intangible results.
For example, having officers in schools decreases the number of calls Peel police have to respond to, leading to a savings in the police budget, the study found.
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 also found. This keeps those kids in school and out of jail — outcomes researchers attached approximate dollar values to.
Overall, the study found, Peel police got $11.13 of value for every $1 they spent on the program.
The Peel District School Board said there was "tremendous value" in the program.
"Through a partnership that is adaptive, responsive and focused on student success and well-being, we look forward to working together with police to support all of our students so that every child and teen feels safe, respected and included," the board's director of education, Peter Joshua, said in a statement.
Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson said the safety and well-being of racialized students in particular should have been the focus of the report.
"This (program) is essentially police officers being able to extract information from minors without their parents being present," Hudson said. "That, to me, should concern all parents and concern all educators who are trying to keep their students safe."
Duxbury said the study found no evidence that random checks, or carding, was occurring in Peel high schools. Most often, students approach school resource officers with a problem or a question, as opposed to officers seeking out students, she said.