Police and Schools

By Alana M. Abramson

Sept, 2009


In the community of West Vancouver, controversy has been brewing since January 2009 with respect to the role of police officers in schools. When the West Vancouver Police Chief, Kash Heed[1], was appointed to lead the force one of the first things he did was to cut the school-based, DARE program. DARE stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and is an American initiative that began in 1983 (DARE, 2009). DARE is delivered by uniformed police officers to 36 million students around the world each year from kindergarten to grade 12. Although a popular and well-funded program in the US and Canada, research with respect to its effectiveness has been mixed, at best. Hanson (2007) notes that scientific studies and research by organizations such as the US Surgeon General and US Department of Education have “consistently shown that DARE is ineffective in reducing the use of alcohol and drugs and is sometimes even counterproductive -- worse than doing nothing.” Despite the lack of evidence-based research, DARE often enjoys support from parents and the police in communities around the country. As Inspector Mark Allen of the Ontario Provincial Police states, “This program is tremendous in teaching our young people about the harmful effects of drugs, and about life skills.”

West Vancouver has delivered DARE for over 12 years and it has been the main point of contact between police officers and students. As such, many parents and educators in West Vancouver strongly opposed the removal of this contact point. For example, Superintendent Jopson said, “"The service level at this point isn't adequate. In my mind, those officers should be based at each of our secondary schools; they should have an office there. . . . Almost every other district I know of and have worked in has the same feature" (North Shore News, January 16, 2009). The West Vancouver School District echoed these same concerns in a letter to the Mayor saying, “…we will once again request that a School Liaison Officer be assigned to each of our three secondary schools. The School Liaison Program, which exists in all other metro school districts, provides an opportunity for police officers to meet with hundreds of youth each week in a pro-active and preventative role” (WV Board of Education, January 20, 2009). The call for the School Liaison Program – having specific officers assigned to the schools – has been made by the School Board for several years but up until this point only one West Vancouver officer had been responsible for all matters relating to the schools. The Chief of Police on the other hand, justified this one-officer-only position saying that dealing with youth and crime should be a collaborative approach, where the police play only one role and work together with other stakeholders towards school safety. He stated, “(Police) can only put together one piece of the overall puzzle: The enforcement part and trying to be the catalyst to engage others. My goal when I decided to move away from the DARE program was to have this comprehensive strategy in place as a replacement. We're trying to move that forward as fast as we can" (North Shore News, January 19, 2009).

In June 2009, the West Vancouver Police Department (WVPD) released a report called “Reaching Out” - the new strategy the police had developed for dealing with youth. The purpose of this report was “to collaboratively identify and develop forward-thinking initiatives that will ensure our combined resources are leveraged to provide sustainable and results-driven solutions” pertaining to youth crime and safety (Wanless, 2009). In the report, the WVPD identify public and private schools as a main stakeholder in this task and outlined some ways that police will be involved with the school community. While the WVPD has not reinstated DARE, they have introduced other mechanisms to integrate police with schools including the presence of Youth Liaison and Contact Officers at both the elementary and high school levels with the purpose of enforcement, education, and improved partnerships.

This local example highlights the tension between schools, community, parents, and police when it comes to answering the complicated question, “what is the role of the police in schools?” In order to better understand the question and some possible responses to it, some background about the history of the relationship between police and schools is important.

The presence of police in schools has not always been commonplace in Canada. It may be that this generation of students will be the first to remember the police as an accepted and visible part of their school community. This idea originated in the United States where the perception of escalated levels of school violence led directly to the introduction of police presence in schools in the early 1990s following high profile school shootings. Johnson (1999) notes that in the quest to reduce and prevent the incidents of violence in schools, most American institutions have adopted regulatory programs which are based on the assumption that increased visual security in the environment such as cameras will deter acts of violence and other harmful activities. These measures, often used in conjunction with educational initiatives that seek to prevent harmful behaviours or address their root causes, are often implemented with the support of law enforcement. Johnson (1999) says, “the need for constant regulatory checks before, during, and after school has led some school officials to take a proactive approach to school violence by incorporating a police model into their crime-prevention strategies. Police officers have now joined forces with other community agencies and leaders in the plight to curb incidents of school violence” (176). In fact, in the US, the model of choice for public school safety has been the policing model. According to Gastic (2006), “in many school districts (e.g., New York City, Philadelphia), those individuals appointed to manage safety conditions in schools are veteran law enforcement officers” and the technology and management techniques used in policing and corrections predominate how schools are managed in relation to safety (3-4).

The alternative perspective is that schools are not the dangerous places that the media would make them out to be. Theriot (2009) argues that the massive increases in security measures such as metal detectors and police presence in schools is not justified by the reality of the situation. According to this author, school-based crime rates are declining and when events do occur they are rare and usually non-violent in nature. In addition, he argues that criminalizing students’ behaviour through the use of police-based models has led to an increase in the number of youth charged with criminal offenses and, thus, the labeling and stigmatizing of more youth. This is because matters that traditionally have been dealt with internally by administrators and teachers have now moved into the criminal justice realm which has negative implications on students and families. When the police are more present in schools, the likelihood of taking a more criminal justice based approach increases, rather than having police work with the school to take a problem-solving approach. Theriot (2009) also points out that research on the effectiveness of police and security measures in schools is inconclusive. Some studies suggest that these measures can actually increase school disorder and lead to an “adversarial relationship” between school staff and students (281). Gastic (2006) has noted that while these measures might decrease actual incidents of violence, the impact on student attitudes and perceptions of safety has been negative.

In North America, one of the more popular programs involving police and schools is the School Resource Officer initiative. The West Vancouver Police Department has referred to them as Youth Liaison or Youth Contact Officers. These uniformed officers are specifically assigned to schools to a have a presence there. There is no consistency around how this role is defined and the responsibilities tend to differ depending on the school as well as the individual police agency or officer. In one study, Johnson (1999) clearly articulates the multiple roles Resource Officers fulfill. These included checking students’ IDs to minimize the number of trespassers coming into the school, checking exterior doors to make sure that they were locked, immediately intervening in a potential violent or dangerous situation involving students such as a fight, drug possession, or gang identification and establishing a trusting and respectful relationship with students so that students would be willing to inform authorities about a potential dangerous situation before it occurred (182). From this list, it is easy to see some areas of potential conflict between police performing enforcement related duties while at the same time trying to build relationship and trust with students. Without clearly defined and understood roles, it is easy for police to be given multiple and competing tasks which is troubling for the entire school community.

A salient point here is that there seems to be an assumption amongst many educators, school administrators, parents, policing agencies and community members that police involvement in our schools has only a positive impact. There seems to be little public discourse about whether or not police should play a role inside schools and, if so, what this role will be. With the warnings some authors such as Theriot have made about the risks schools run in terms of increasing the number of youth involved with the justice system, perceived racial profiling and escalation of fear, deep thought must be given to whether the costs of police in schools are worth the potential benefits. While some may argue that police in schools can increase safety as well as improve relationships between law enforcement and students, the research has not supported this assumption. Similar to the DARE program, it may be that parents and schools support the idea of “just doing something” without considering if it is the best use of resources, compared to other initiatives that look more holistically at issues such as substance use. Within the literature on school safety, there seems to be a general consensus that collaborative approaches are required to help youth feel and actually be safe. If this is the case, the police are only one part of the puzzle. Rauner (2000) has argued that more professionals are not the answer. She gives the example of one school in America who “refuse to have a social worker on staff on the grounds that it is impossible to isolate ‘social work’ from the rest of youth work” (70). The focus of this school is “on the whole person in the context of culture, community, family and peer group” (Rauner, 2000, 70). Given this view, it seems that police and others who care about keeping youth safe should work together and approach this task from a human perspective that is based on building relationships rather than enforcing rules. If a more holistic approach to youth is what is most effective for positive development, police may not be the only professionals that need to have a regular presence in schools.

On a related note, when police come to work in schools with an enforcement response rather than a problem-solving approach, they run the risk of pushing more youth into the criminal justice system, which creates new issues for them. While the report from the West Vancouver Police outlines the multi-faceted role of Youth Contact Officers in the schools, enforcement is still expected to be part of their role. It is precisely this tension between building trusting relationships with youth on one hand and gathering information in order to arrest a youth on the other that can lead to mixed messages to students that jeopardize any gains in the area of building relationships. While this dual role of police may be unavoidable, it is important that clarity exists amongst all stakeholders so that the expectations, roles and responsibilities are clear to all involved.

Different students perceive and experience police differently. More needs to be understood about these differences in order to get a grasp on the consequences of the “police in schools” initiative, which is based on American perceptions of an inflated dangerousness in schools. Further, school districts like West Vancouver need to have meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders, including youth themselves, to identify issues around school safety and what role, if any, the police will play in keeping them safe. So far the most common initiatives in Canadian schools are DARE and the School Liaison Program; these remain popular in the minds of the public and school officials without acknowledging the lack of research that speaks to the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of these programs. Without a meaningful discussion of what the role of police should be in schools, parents, educators, and police will be demanding different things without a common understanding of the pros and cons of each. Without asking these difficult questions, initiatives like the Youth Contact Officers and DARE will continue to be imposed on students as solutions to perceived problems. The unintended consequences of continuing down this path needs careful consideration to ensure that police and the rest of the school community are working effectively together for the common good of all students.

Questions to Consider

  1. In examining the North Shore news article and the conflict between police and the school over DARE, the voices of the students receiving DARE are missing. What might the students say if they were asked about what they think the role of police should be in schools? What implications does this missing voice have?
  2. In one study, students reported feeling that the presence of police officers was an invasion of their right to privacy at school. What do you think about this perspective? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  3. The Gastic study found that African American students felt disproportionately targeted and intimidated by security guards and measures in their school. How does this finding relate to issues of social justice? How might moving away from standards towards a more relational approach be helpful in mitigating these injustices?
  4. If a more holistic approach to school safety is needed, who are the important stakeholders that need to be involved?
  5. Often School Resource Officers are not provided special training prior to being assigned this role. What types of skills and personalities would be most helpful in this role? What specialized training, if any, do you think would help these officers perform well in this role?


The DARE Program. Accessed at: http://www.dare.com/home/about_dare.asp

Gastic, B. (2006). At What Price? Safe School Policies and Their Unintentional Consequences for At-Risk Students. Temple University.

Hanson, D. (2007). Drug Abuse Resistance Education: The Effectiveness of DARE. Accessed at: http://alcoholfacts.org/DARE.html

Johnson, I. (1999). School Violence: The effectiveness of a school resource officer program in a southern city. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(2), 173-192.

Kash Heed, BC Liberal Party Web Site. Accessed at: http://www.kashheed.com/

North Shore News, “Drugs Rampant in West Vancouver says Police Chief.” (January 16, 2009). Accessed at: http://www.canada.com/northshorenews/news/story.html?id=dc778579-61c1-44c0-8e38-b275e3d9436c&p=1

Rauner, D. (2000). They Still Pick Me Up When I Fall: the role of caring in youth development and community life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wanless, L. (2009). “Reaching Out.” West Vancouver Police Department. Accessed at: http://wvpd.ca/images/stories/file/Reaching_Out_Jun22_2009.pdf

West Vancouver Board of Education, January 20, 2009, Letter to Pamela Goldsmith-Jones.


[1] Kash Heed resigned from the West Vancouver Police Department to run successfully in the BC 2009 General Election as an MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview. In June 2009, he was appointed Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General. Heed’s initiatives continue to influence the West Vancouver Police Department currently being run by Acting Chief Jim Almas.