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Edmonton school trustee resigns over comments on refugee children and violence

Jonny Wakefield
Wednesday June 24, 2020

Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton and Edmonton Public school board trustee Cheryl Johner during a board meeting in 2017. ED KAISER / 20078720A
Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton and Edmonton Public school board trustee Cheryl Johner during a board meeting in 2017. ED KAISER / 20078720A

An Edmonton public school trustee has resigned after linking refugee children and violence in schools.

Cheryl Johner, the Edmonton Public School Board trustee for Ward A, made the comments at the end of a lengthy meeting Tuesday focused on the future of school resource officers (SROs) — a controversial, decades-old program that deploys city police officers to local schools.

“My comments were inappropriate and immediately regrettable,” Johner said in a statement. “I take full responsibility for what I said, and sincerely apologize for the hurt and upset I have caused our families, students, staff and community members.”

‘All they’ve known is violence’

Ward G trustee Bridget Stirling brought forward a motion at Tuesday’s meeting asking for an independent study of the SRO program, following concerns about the impact armed police officers have on marginalized students. While the board approved the review, a motion to suspend the program pending its outcome failed on a tie vote. Johner opposed the motion.

“My mind goes to the number of refugee students that come into our district that are from war-torn countries, that have never known school before arriving here,” Johner said via video conference. “All they’ve known is violence. When those students — sometimes — enter our schools, they can be violent there as well.

“And I feel that the safety of students is critically important, that other students feel safe as they go to their own schools. The officers act as a deterrent, they can respond quickly to de-escalate situations when needed,” she said.

A University of Alberta professor of education said Johner’s sentiment is unsupported by evidence, and several groups and individuals condemned Johner’s remarks as harmful to refugee children.

Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton, has two children in the public school system, and sits on the Edmonton police chief’s African community liaison committee. He believed Johner’s sentiments could contribute to bullying of refugee students.

“This is unacceptable,” Ibrahim said of the comments. Ibrahim came to Canada as a refugee and said many refugee children fear officers in uniform because of their experiences in their home countries.

“I’ve always been wondering, why do we need to have police (in schools)?” he added. “But now I’ve …. seen some of the things that some of the people have in their minds.”

Ubaka Ogbogu, a University of Alberta law professor, was among those who called for Johner’s resignation.

“It’s absolutely mind-blowing that she would say something like that without any support whatsoever,” he said. “This will do incredible damage to refugees.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said Johner’s remark flies in the face of the refugee experience.

“Refugees are people who are forced to flee for their lives — they are the VICTIMS of violence,” Dench said in an email. “Refugees probably have a higher appreciation for the value of peace and security than many Canadians, because they know what it is like not to have it.”

‘The least of which is violence’

Anna Kirova, a professor in the U of A faculty of education, said the idea that refugee students are uniquely predisposed to violence is false.

“I think that justifying the presence of police officers in the schools with the increased number of refugee children in schools is completely inappropriate,” she said. “Everything that the research shows is that these children have a range of issues, the least of which is violence.”

Kirova, who specializes in the integration of immigrant and refugee children in schools, recently reviewed 25 studies on the topic. She said refugee students sometimes exhibit anxiety, insecurity, PTSD, feelings of helplessness and adjustment problems, but that anger is relatively uncommon.

“There are a some studies — four out of 25 I recently reviewed — that showed that there are some behaviours related to anger in male children who have been in refugee camps for an extended period of time, who have no social support in the community that they’re in, or parental support, or professional support,” she said.

“So if we just say that in general they’re more violent and that’s why we need police presence in schools — it’s not recorded in the (academic) literature that I’m aware of,” she said.

Johner was first elected in 2010. In her resignation letter, she said she has “tried to be a passionate defender of the rights and safety of all children, and an advocate for safe, inclusive learning environments. I recognize my words yesterday do not reflect these actions, and I deeply regret this.”

“I know the Division and the Board of Trustees will continue their critical work of addressing systematic racism in Edmonton Public Schools and our society.”

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks will address the media Wednesday afternoon.

—with files from Lauren Boothby
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